BUDAPEST – Commemorations will be held Friday on the anniversary of the Danube River tragedy in which a sightseeing boat carrying mostly tourists from South Korea sank after a collision with a river cruise ship that killed at least 27 people.
At least 25 out of 33 South Korean tourists died when the Hableany (Mermaid) boat capsized at the foot of Budapest’s Margit Bridge near the neo-Gothic Hungarian parliament building on the night of May 29, 2019. The boat’s two-man Hungarian crew also died, while a female South Korean tourist is still missing.
Some of the victims’ bodies were found weeks after the crash more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) downstream.
The Ukrainian captain of the Viking Sigyn cruise ship, Yuriy Chaplinsky, is facing charges including the negligent endangerment of water traffic leading to a fatal mass catastrophe and 35 counts of failing to give assistance.
His trial began with a preliminary hearing on March 11, but court sessions set for April and May were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. If conditions allow, the trial is set to resume in September.
Friday's memorial events will include the placement of a wreath on the water at the site of the crash by the company which operated the Hableany, as well as a tribute with the participation of officials from the Hungarian government and the city of Budapest.
The Hableany was raised out of the Danube by a huge floating crane on June 11, 2019, with divers from South Korea assisting their Hungarian colleagues in recovering several bodies that were still aboard the sunken tour boat.
Dive supervisor Janos Vigh, 60, led an eight-member team which descended in the murky Danube to help recover the bodies and worked to secure a harness on the vessel lying about nine meters (30 feet) beneath the surface so it could be lifted out of the river.
Recovery and salvage operations were greatly hampered by the Danube’s high springtime water levels, its fast flow and near-zero underwater visibility.
“The circumstances of the submersion were very difficult,” Vigh said in an interview. “Water was flowing at four meters (13 feet) per second, which is like having to stay upright in hurricane winds of 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph). Which is impossible.”
With underwater visibility of less than six inches (around 15 centimeters), and carrying more than 60 kilograms (130 pounds) of equipment and weights — “without them we'd be swept away life a leaf" — divers memorized blueprints of the tour boat and felt their way around it to complete their tasks.
South Korean divers attempted a couple of early dives but after experiencing the Danube's powerful flow, they gave way to Vigh's team. Still, the first body found at the wreck was recovered by Korean divers, “mainly for religious reasons,” Vigh said.
“In practice, the Koreans were very friendly and kind,” Vigh noted. “Once they established that this isn’t the sea, that it’s not still water, that it’s not a walk in the park, from then on they helped our work, observed our work but they let us do our jobs.”
As several of the divers had a military background, including tours in Kosovo and other war zones, having to bring up the bodies “didn't cause a large break in them.”
“Naturally, it wasn’t easy,” Vigh said, who also talked about the unusual circumstances of being at the center of an operation that was being closely followed by both Hungarian and South Korean authorities.
Proud to be involved in operations that included around 1,000 people led by Hungary's Counter Terrorism Center, or TEK, Vigh had a moment of apprehension when the TEK commander asked if they needed anything and one of the sweet-toothed divers said he wanted some chocolate.
“Fortunately, the major general asked if we wanted dark or milk chocolate, and a box of it was soon delivered," Vigh concluded.