Ferry captain high on drugs during accident killing 6 tourists

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Bloody finger of incrimination again pointed at fast-talking, slow-acting marine regulators

A captain high on methamphetamines was behind the wheel when a passenger ferry capsized and sank off Koh Larn, killing six Thai and foreign tourists.

Saman Khwanmueang, 42, turned himself in to Pattaya Police Station late Nov. 3, hours after the two-deck Koh Larn Travel boat overloaded with 209 passengers flooded and sank about a half-kilometer off Nuan Beach. Saman, who fled the scene as tourists without life jackets flailed for their lives, eventually surrendered, confessing he’d driven the boat into the rocks while intoxicated. A urine test confirmed methamphetamines in his bloodstream.

Boat owner Jaruk Ngamkaew gives his statement of ownership of the boat to the investigation officer at Pattaya police station.Boat owner Jaruk Ngamkaew gives his statement of ownership of the boat to the investigation officer at Pattaya police station.

Polish nationals Antonu Franczak, 62, his wife Lida, 60, Hong Kong native To Kin Man, 48, and Thais Nattawadee Sopittapong, 44, Jaree Attavodo, 67, and Chuchart Chomphunak, 52, died. Thirty-four others were taken to area hospitals for treatment, with several remaining in intensive care. The injured included five Russians, one Japanese and one Chinese.

Police said the deaths and injuries occurred not only because the captain was abusing narcotics, taking the boat off course, but because it was severely overloaded and lacked sufficient numbers of life jackets and flotation devices.

Rescue workers comb the sea to search for any victims that might have been lost.Rescue workers comb the sea to search for any victims that might have been lost.

That revelation points yet another bloody finger at Pattaya, Chonburi and national politicians, Marine Department, police and regulatory officials who repeatedly have promised to crack down on obvious and well-documented safety lapses that now have lead to nine deaths, leg amputations, slit throats and dozens of other injuries in boat-related accidents in Pattaya Bay.

With each headline-searing accident – and the bad press for the city is now circling the entire world – hand-wringing men in suits profess regrets and swear that the myriad of marine-safety laws that already exist will, for once, be enforced and that sorely needed new ones will be enacted.

But since April, when two South Koreans were maimed and 18 others hurt in a speedboat crash, the only things to result from the talk are more accidents and more death.

Checks for both safety equipment and proper boat capacity are the easiest and most-often-cited improvements that will be made. Yet both never happened here. The 4 p.m. ferry was one of seven operated by Koh Larn Travel. Tourists scrambled to get back to the mainland and the drug-addled captain was only to happy to take 150 baht from anyone that wanted to go, as well as sell them alcoholic beverages for the 40-minute ride back.

Emergency Medical Technicians frantically provide CPR to try and save the victims.Emergency Medical Technicians frantically provide CPR to try and save the victims.

No one on Koh Larn cared – if they were even present to check – that the boat could only carry 150 passengers. Boat owner Jaruk Ngamkaew, 45, claimed there were 160 on board, but counts from passengers and the local dive boat that came to their rescue put the figure at 209.

Admittedly stoned, Saman steered the boat off course, taking into the boulder-laden coral reefs off Koh Larn, Divers who examined the sunken craft Nov. 4 found the bow cracked open. Water flooded the top deck, swamping the pump. Saman cut all power, but never gave any safety directives to the passengers, fearing they’d panic.

They did. Discovering the boat had only a fraction of the life vests needed, passengers rushed to the perceived safety of the second deck. The boat listed suddenly and then capsized. Water gushed through the fractured wooden hull, taking it down in minutes. Bodies clung to the few foam tubes scattered among the orange-jacketed passengers lucky enough to grab a life vest before the boat sank.

Local boat operator Panutcha Bunnag was among 30 scuba divers within sight of the accident. She told a reporter they called rescuers then sped their boat – loaded with a number of qualified emergency first responders – to the scene. The divers took 71 people out of the water, three in serious condition.

First Naval Area Command, Sawang Boriboon and police officials soon arrived, plucking the tired and injured from the sea.

Back on shore, Chonburi provincial police commander Maj. Gen. Khatcha Thatsart, Royal Thai Police advisor Gen. Wuthi Liptapnalop, and Region 2 police commander Lt. Gen. Kawee Suphanont quickly began the expected public posturing, reviewing the victims and suspect, all the while promising swift remedial action.

Boat owner Jaruk claimed all his boats are property licensed, but offered no explanations of why they were so poorly outfitted with safety gear. He also claimed to have adequate insurance, promising to compensate the injured and families of the dead. Such compensation totals little. The new Pattaya “tourist court” awarded the families of two Chinese tourists killed in an August speedboat collision just 2.3 million of the 8 million baht they each sought.

Saman, of course, is being set up as the fall guy. After all, he admitted smoking meth. His license was duly revoked and he’ll face charges of reckless driving leading to death. And authorities are promising to revoke Koh Larn Travel’s license if any of its other six boats fail inspection. But whether any of that results in a safer ocean for Pattaya’s nine million tourists remains very much in doubt.