Thai rescuers on Friday pulled 37 bodies from waters off the coast of the holiday island of Phuket after a tourist boat capsized in heavy seas with dozens of Chinese passengers on board.
The dead were found drifting face down in the water, still wearing life jackets, several kilometres (miles) from where the Phoenix sank after being hit by five-metre (15-foot) high waves in a storm on Thursday evening.
“The death toll today is 37, with 18 still unaccounted for,” said a Thai navy official late Friday, requesting anonymity.
In a grisly development earlier, divers reported seeing “over 10 bodies” floating inside the hull of the submerged boat, according to Thai navy, Rear Admiral Charoenphon Khumrasee, who said they would try to retrieve them later Friday.
One survivor, a Chinese woman, was rushed to hospital in Phuket, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, after she was found several kilometres from the boat, floating near the bodies of fellow passengers. Her condition was unknown.
The boat was carrying 105 passengers, mostly Chinese tourists when it sank.
A total of 56 passengers were reported missing as of Friday morning before the recovery effort began, with the Phoenix looking set to be one of the worst boat disasters in recent Thai history.
The boat sank 40 metres below the surface of the Andaman Sea, a few kilometres off the coast of Koh He, an islet known for its coral formations and popular with day-trippers from the tourist magnet of Phuket.
A stream of full body bags were brought to shore at Chalong pier in Phuket and taken to a nearby hospital for identification, according to the Public Health Ministry.
Helicopters continued to scan the water Friday afternoon in what appeared to be an increasingly forlorn hunt for survivors.
“I’m not really sure how many will survive,” a grim-faced Noraphat Plodthong, the governor of Phuket, told reporters.
The Phoenix hit trouble in bad weather Thursday evening, sparking a rescue attempt that took place in the dark.
Some 48 people — passengers and crew — were rescued and one body found before the operation was suspended overnight.
Stunned survivors huddled in blankets on a Phuket pier late Thursday.
Some cried while others appeared dazed as they walked around still wearing their life vests. So far 21 bodies have been recovered from the water.
Thai government ordered an investigation into why “the boat went to sea” despite a weather warning of strong wind.
The Phoenix was among several boats that appeared to have ignored a warning in place since Wednesday not to take tourists on day-trips to the islands that dot the seas off Phuket.
Several other vessels hit trouble late Thursday, but all of their passengers were rescued.