Connect with us

Opinion

Two years ago – remembering Phuket’s Phoenix boat tragedy

Thaiger

Published

 on 

“There were 13 children that died in this disaster. Many were later found dead, floating face down, not far from their deceased parents.”

On an otherwise ordinary afternoon, two tour boats, Phoenix and Serenata, were heading back to Phuket after a half day tour of snorkelling near Koh Racha. The weather forecast was for seasonal monsoonal SW winds and waves, about the usual for that time of the year.

But there was also a weather warning for a storm later in the afternoon of July 5, 2018. For whatever reasons the captains of the two vessels started heading back to Phuket despite the warnings or perhaps in full ignorance of them. Even a look to the SW horizon would have indicated some poor weather was on the way.

Two years ago - remembering Phuket's Phoenix boat tragedy | News by Thaiger

The tour boat Phoenix, as it appeared in promotional websites

Zheng Lancheng had travelled from China with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and 18 month old granddaughter for a trip to the tropical southern Thai island. Phoenix was carrying 101 passengers – 89 tourists, all but 2 were Chinese, 11 crew and a tour guide.

As the boats were off Koh Hei, south west of Phuket, a storm front, now looming large as it approached (a radar screenshot had even been posted by The Thaiger about 30 minutes before the tragedy), reached the two boats whipping up waves. The height of the waves was reported to be up to 5 metres by the Captain of Phoenix (but were more likely around 3 metres).

A boat of the size of Phoenix, in capable hands, should have handled the conditions, whilst uncomfortable for the passengers, with relative ease.

But Phoenix wasn’t just a standard purpose-built 29 metre diving boat. It had some major design and construction flaws which would contribute to the death toll on the day. Loose concrete blocks had been placed into the boats bilge to provide ballast and stability. These concrete blocks would shift as the boat started capsizing and make a bad situation worse. The boat had one watertight door, it should have had four. And the windows, smashing when the water hit them, were not marine-grade glass.

More about the boat’s shortcomings HERE.

Mr. Zheng and his family didn’t know what was going on. The boat was ‘shaking’ and passengers, although remaining silent, were ‘clearly frightened’. Suddenly the boat started lurching and tipping over. People started screaming. Most were still below decks because of the rain. Few were wearing life vests or bouyancy vests. Mr. Zheng, above decks with his family, held on to his wife but her knee had been injured. Suddenly he was in the water. Eventually many of the survivors would be found to be wearing non-compliant bouyancy vests.

He later told police there was no warning, no advice from crew beyond ‘Get out’.

Other witness reports say that the Thai crew and Captain, all saved on the day, were the first to get off the boat leaving more than half the passengers below decks and many other floundering around in the water.

Mr. Zheng struggled onto one of the life rafts, dragged in by other bewildered passengers. By this stage the boat had sunk.

“There were no words between any of us in the rubber boat. All of us were stunned. We could only hear the sounds of the sea.”

Mr Zheng said if they had known there would be a big rubber boat floating around after their boat sank, they might have first put on life vests and jumped in the vicinity to be saved.

“However, we knew nothing about it. No one gave us any warnings or guidance.”

There were 13 children that died in this disaster. Many were later found dead, floating face down, not far from their deceased parents. In total, 47 people died as a result of the Phoenix sinking.

The other boat, Serenata, had also sunk off Koh Mai Thon but its 42 passengers were all rescued.

In the days following there were countless missteps and mishandling by Thai officials and politicians. Among them the Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan pushing the blame onto the boat’s ‘real’ owners saying the situation was just “Chinese killing Chinese”, alluding to the early revelation that the boat was really owned and funded by Chinese who merely had a Thai ‘shelf’ company to comply with the law.

“Some Chinese use Thai nominees to bring Chinese tourists in. They did not heed warnings, which is why this incident happened. This needs to be remedied,” Prawit said.

But what warnings? The boat had been ticked off, approved and registered by Thai Authorities. Clearly unsuitable for its designed purposes, the vessel had been able to conduct tours with paying customers – all under the watch of Thai marine officials. For all the finger pointing and shifting of blame, the cause of the deaths lay fairly and squarely at the feet of the Thai authorities, the Thai Captain and Thai crew who had it within their entire control to avoid the loss of life.

Then, the final insult, as the Thai Government tries to auction off the wreck of Phoenix saying they needed to pay for the storage fees at the Rasada shipyard where the broken relic still sits.

Read our editorial about the auction HERE.

Two years later and the fallout can be properly measured. Probably the most obvious is the drop in Chinese tourism (which was already languishing before the coronavirus pandemic stated). Chinese social media savaged the handling of the entire Phoenix ‘situation’ and was candid in recommending that Chinese tourists avoid Phuket and Thailand in the future. And that, in part, has happened.

Phuket’s Chinese tourist flow dropped dramatically, up to 30-50% year on year (based on hotel bookings, tour bookings and airport arrivals). There was also a drop in Chinese patronage for the rest of Thailand although the Thai government stepped up measures to keep the numbers rolling on, including the waiver of the visa-on-arrival fee and special ‘Chinese only’ immigration queues.

From a media point of view, Phuket largely ‘dodged a bullet’ as the world’s media was focused on the ongoing drama at Tham Luang Caves, luckily with a much happier ending (the rescue of the 13 young men from the caves in Chiang Rai). The Phoenix boat tragedy was not as widely reported as it would have been normally.

But Phuket’s reputation had been wounded. The stench of the unnecessary 47 deaths has tarnished the island’s ‘tropical playground’ sales point and will hang over the island for years, especially in the minds of Chinese visitors.

Last year the Phuket Governor said there would be no memorial for the 47 lost lives “because no one wants one”. He also told The Phuket News last year that the Chinese government and Chinese tourists now had more confidence in the safety of tourism in Phuket because the number of Chinese tourists travelling to Phuket has increased steadily after the incident (but never reached anywhere near the same popularity).

His misinformed comment, unchallenged by Thai reporters, bore no resemblance to the facts or explained hotel occupancies in Phuket sitting at record lows and the absence of the earlier throngs of Chinese travellers pre-Phoenix disaster.

Tow years later, the weather in Phuket is fine, with moderate winds, cloudy skies and a temperature of 31 – a perfect day for a tour off Phuket’s coast to one of the many, many islands (except there are very few boats running at the moment).

Now Phuket faces an existential threat to its tourist business – a tiny virus that has shut down the island’s tourism almost completely – that will be even more complex to survive than the Phoenix boat disaster. But the island has survived numerous hits in the past and, somehow, is able to rebuild following the disruptions.

Two years after that fateful day off the south east coast of the island Phuket is a very quiet place indeed.

Two years ago - remembering Phuket's Phoenix boat tragedy | News by Thaiger

 

Get more from The Thaiger

📱 Download our app on Android or iOS
👋 Have your say on our Thailand forums
🔔 Subscribe to our daily email newsletter
📺 Subscribe / Join YouTube for daily shows
👍 Like/Follow us on Facebook
🐦 FOLLOW us on Twitter
📷 FOLLOW us on Instagram

image

Join the conversation and have your say on Thailand news published on The Thaiger.

Thaiger Talk is our new Thaiger Community where you can join the discussion on everything happening in Thailand right now.

Please note that articles are not posted to the forum instantly and can take up to 20 min before being visible. Click for more information and the Thaiger Talk Guidelines.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Phil

    Monday, July 6, 2020 at 1:35 pm

    The “tiny virus” has not shut down tourism in Phuket. The government has done that. This tragic boat story was not widely publicised outside of Thailand on mainstream news, but it did make other news. I remember seeing it in Dubai, just before I travelled to Thailand on business.

  2. Avatar

    Toby Andrews

    Monday, July 6, 2020 at 2:20 pm

    This country allows 13 year old boys to ride motorcycles without licenses, so what hope is there that they supply competent tourist boat crews.
    The Phuket Thai authorities, the captain, and crew, were all to blame according to reports above.
    I believe it.

  3. Avatar

    gosport

    Monday, July 6, 2020 at 5:55 pm

    It is not the virus, it is the local administration shut it down. it is the looking the other way puts tourists at risk.

  4. Avatar

    Steve Wooltorton

    Tuesday, January 12, 2021 at 6:36 pm

    Nothing has been learnt and nothing has changed, this month I took a ferry to Muk island Trang, not even a guard rail on starboard side and no lifejackets to be seen, the gang plank was broken and elderly people had to use this to get on and off ,nothing will ever change in a third world country

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

If you have story ideas, a restaurant to review, an event to cover or an issue to discuss, contact The Thaiger editorial staff.

Follow Thaiger by email:

Phuket7 hours ago

Domestic travel to Phuket all but banned starting August 2

Coronavirus (Covid-19)8 hours ago

Despite Covid-19 Phuket Sandbox continues at least 2 weeks

Coronavirus (Covid-19)10 hours ago

Chulalongkorn University progressing on domestic mRNA vaccine

Sponsored18 hours ago

Experience Phuket’s Islands with 5 Star Marine

Welcome back to Thailand!

Thaiger is getting behind local businesses for the restart of tourism in Thailand - up to 50% discounts across all advertising packages!

Koh Samui14 hours ago

Black Club Covid-19 outbreak on Koh Samui widens

Thailand15 hours ago

Possible earthquake in Nonthaburi this morning

Best of15 hours ago

Chiang Mai’s 8 most indulgent spa hotels

image
Join the conversation on the Thaiger Talk forums today!
Coronavirus (Covid-19)15 hours ago

Bangkok Bang Sue scam under investigation, 7 volunteers and counting to be questioned

Thailand16 hours ago

Thailand News Today | ‘Crowding’ due to camera angles, train hospitals | July 29

Thailand16 hours ago

Spray guns ineffective and dangerous, says TFDA

Drugs17 hours ago

Methamphetamine pills hidden in instant noodle packets delivered for Covid patient

Coronavirus (Covid-19)17 hours ago

Anonymous “Dr Sandy” says pray the Covid situation gets better

Coronavirus (Covid-19)18 hours ago

Thursday Covid Update: Record high of 17,669 new cases; provincial totals

Phuket19 hours ago

Phuket governor eyes construction camps for stricter Covid measures

Best of20 hours ago

Top 5 spas in Chiang Mai

Coronavirus (Covid-19)20 hours ago

Health Minister says Bang Sue not crowded, blames “camera angles”

Thailand5 months ago

Thailand News Today | Thai Airways in rehab, All go for Songkran | March 4

Tourism5 months ago

Phuket’s nightlife. Yes, bars and clubs are still open | VIDEO

Phuket5 months ago

Thailand News Today | Covid passport talks, Thai Airways heads to court | March 2

Tourism5 months ago

Phuket Thai food treats you need to try | VIDEO

Thailand5 months ago

Thailand News Today | Bars, pubs and restaurants ‘sort of’ back to normal | Feb 23

Tourism5 months ago

In search of Cat & Dog Cafés in Phuket Town | VIDEO

Thailand6 months ago

Thailand News Today | Gambling crackdown, Seafood market to reopen, Vlogger challenge | Jan 21

Thailand6 months ago

Thailand News Today | Covid testing for visas, Business impact, Vaccine approval | January 19

Thailand6 months ago

Thailand News Today | Weekend Bangkok bombs, Thailand fires, Covid update | January 18

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Stray car on runway, Indonesian quake, 300 baht tourist fee | January 15

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Governor off respirator, sex-trafficking arrest, condo prices falling | January 14

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Chinese vaccine, Thailand ‘drug hub’, Covid update | January 13

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Bangkok may ease restrictions, Phuket bar curfew, Vaccine roll out | January 12

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Covid latest, Cockfights closed down, Bryde’s Whale beached | January 11

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Southern floods, Face mask fines, Thai Air Asia woes | January 8

Trending