PHUKET: Thailand's navy pulled 12 bodies from waters off the coast of the holiday island of Phuket on Friday (Jul 6) after a tourist boat went down in heavy seas with dozens of Chinese passengers on board.
Five were found drifting face down in the water, still wearing life jackets, several miles from the area where the Phoenix sank after being hit by five-metre high waves in a storm on Thursday evening.
One survivor, a Chinese woman, was rushed to hospital in Phuket, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, after she was also found several miles from the boat, floating near the bodies of fellow passengers. Her condition was unknown.
Forty-three other passengers unaccounted for but believed to have been trapped on the Phoenix as it sank 40m below the Andaman Sea on Thursday afternoon.
"The 12 bodies are on the way to Vachira Phuket Hospital for identification," according to a statement from the Public Health Ministry in Bangkok.
The vessel, which made a day trip from Phuket despite a weather warning, keeled over after it was battered by 5m high storm waves.
"Navy searchers found seven dead (on Friday morning)," Busaya Jaipiem, a spokeswoman for Phuket province said, as helicopters scanned the sea and divers tried to reach the sunken boat.
The Phoenix was carrying 105 passengers, the majority of whom were Chinese tourists, when it hit trouble, sparking a rescue attempt that took place in the dark.
Forty-eight people - passengers and crew - were rescued before the operation was suspended late Thursday.
But by Friday morning hopes of finding further significant numbers of survivors had dimmed as ambulances waited to receive the bodies at Chalong Pier on Phuket island.
"I assume they are trapped inside the boat ... but I wish some of them have survived," Phuket governor Noraphat Plodthong told reporters.
"I have not yet received any reports of people floating in the sea."
The body of one of the passengers, believed to be a Chinese holidaymaker, was pulled from the sea late Thursday and brought to shore, shortly before the search was called off for the night.
Helicopters, police and fishing boats were deployed early Friday as the rescue mission restarted.
The Thai navy said the Phoenix had sunk 40m below the surface, a few kilometres off the cost of a Koh He, an islet known for its coral formations.
"Navy divers, frogmen and marine police divers have already been sent to the scene," Rear Admiral Charoenphon Khumrasee, deputy commander for Thai Navy in the southern region told reporters.
"Helicopters will search for those who may have floated out."
Stunned survivors of the boat accident huddled in blankets on a Phuket pier late Thursday.
Some cried while others appeared dazed as they walked around still wearing their life vests.
"Eleven are injured, of these two are in serious condition," the governor added.
The Phoenix was among several boats that appeared to have ignored a severe weather warning in place since Wednesday to take tourists on day-trips to the islands that dot the seas off Phuket.
A Chinese consular official arrived at the operations centre in Phuket to monitor the rescue effort.
Several other vessels hit trouble late Thursday. Initial reports from officials said all of the passengers on those boats were rescued.
But as details dripped through overnight, governor Noraphat said two passengers were still unaccounted for from another stricken ship.
Phuket is a magnet for overseas visitors including Western sun-seekers and huge numbers of Chinese tourists who make up the bulk of the 35 million people expected to visit the kingdom this year.
Thailand has a poor health and safety record and accidents are common on its roads and busy waterways - especially in tourist areas during the monsoon season which is now biting.