Tourists drown in overcrowded boat

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The Independent Online
A PLEASURE-BOAT tragedy, brought horror and death to a charming Spanish tourist resort yesterday, when 20 elderly French tourists drowned in shallow waters on a day of eerily calm waters and clear skies.

The disaster happened on Lake Banyoles near Gerona in north-eastern Spain when the electrically powered Oca (Anna) broke up in 27ft of water just 90ft from the shore. The boat which was licensed to carry 80 people, was overloaded and had 141 - mostly French holidaymakers from La Rochelle - on board. They were staying at the Costa Brava resort of Lloret de Mar.

The Oca, which went into service this year was on a regular daily tourist trip around a scenic lake. Within minutes of departing the boat started to list and ship water and the 141 passengers screamed in panic. Those trapped in the lower deck banged on the glass, others jumped into the chilly waters and struggled to swim ashore.

"They tried to go back [to the dock] but there wasn't enough time," one witness said.

"The problem is that most people were trapped and there were others that didn't know how to swim and drowned," the mayor of Banyoles, Joan Solana, told state radio. "But the worst thing was that most people were trapped at the end of the boat and couldn't get out."

Witnesses said the rear of the boat took on water first, and it started sinking. It turned back for the shore, but according to Lluis Barba, chairman of the local yacht club, "went down like a rock". "I got there as fast I could," he said, "but there was nothing to be done."

The horror that sprang without warning from clear skies and calm waters clearly had a devastating impact on all those caught up in the scene but unable to help. "We could see old people up to their necks in water shouting for help and other people crying," a distressed schoolgirl told Spain's national television.

Thirteen bodies were dragged from the water by divers and emergency rescue workers who rushed into the lake with little boats that hauled aboard those who failed to make it to the shore, and those still struggling for breath.

The bodies were lain, covered in sheets, along the little pier before being taken to the local cemetery, which was commandeered as a makeshift mortuary. The bodies were to be repatriated to France. Another seven died after being rushed by ambulance to hospitals in Banyoles and Gerona, overcome by hypothermia and the deadly effects of gulping water into their lungs.

"It is the worst tragedy the lake has seen in 80 years," said Mr Solana, adding "This accident will be very damaging to the lake's popularity as a tourist attraction." He said the boat, which had been conducting its tours since June, had been granted its licence on the understanding that no more than 80 passengers would travel at one time.

Overloading is thought to be the main cause of the tragedy. Rescue workers were searching for two passengers still missing, while investigations were in train to establish if they had joined the excursion. There were fears last night about the condition of one of the 38 injured who were being treated in hospital.

Among those who joined the rescue efforts were a group of 16-year-olds on a day-trip from Barcelona whose coach driver had decided by chance to stop by the lake for a few moments rest before setting off on the two- hour drive to Barcelona. As the boat went down they jumped from the coach and started hauling the shivering and terrified victims to safety.

Along with their teacher, the youngsters tried to revive some of those who had gulped water and to comfort them until the rescue services arrived. Within minutes, dozens of ambulances, fire engines, police vehicles and helicopters converted the tranquil lakeside scene into "something out of a movie", one youth said.

A huge crane was brought to refloat the vessel, but the effort was abandoned for the time being for fear of destroying possible clues to the accident.

The French ambassador in Madrid described the tragedy as "incredible", and the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, sent a message of condolence to all the families.

The Hotel Federation in Gerona appealed for local residents to offer hospitality to the survivors and victims' families making their way to the scene. Within two hours more than 50 rooms were offered.