Briton among 12 dead after tour boat sinks at Vietnam beauty spot

Officials in Vietnam are investigating what caused a boat to sink while anchored in the spectacular Halong Bay, drowning 10 young foreign tourists, including a Briton, named as 30-year-old Stuart McCormick. Two Vietnamese were also killed, including the tour guide.

Amid reports that the boat, Truong Hai, had "problems with its machinery", police and staff from foreign embassies were interviewing survivors to try to piece together what caused the vessel, anchored for the night in a calm sea close to Titov Island, to sink in minutes shortly before dawn. Luckily, the crew managed to send a distress call.

Most of the 15 survivors – nine of them foreign tourists, the rest Vietnamese – had been on deck, to take pictures of the sunrise. Witnesses said a wooden plank suddenly ripped off the hull and water rapidly flooded in while the crew struggled to contain it. The survivors were picked up by boats answering the distress call. Authorities said all of the dead had been asleep in their cabins and were trapped by the pressure of the water.

George Fosmire, a 23-year-old American tourist, said the alarm was raised by his girlfriend. He said she had drowned, with another young woman who was sharing their cabin. Mr Fosmire, who escaped through a window as water flooded their cabin, said: "The whole thing took between 30 seconds and a minute. I had to put my face to the ceiling to suck any air."

The survivors were wrapped in blankets and taken to hospital or nearby hotels to recover; the bodies of the dead – the two Vietnamese, two Americans, Holly Pyle, 25 and Samantha Taylor, 21, two Russians, two Swedes, the Briton, a French citizen, one Japanese and one Swiss – were taken to Bai Chay hospital mortuary.

Reports said most of them were aged between 20 and 25. "Crew members tried to stop the water and alerted the tourists who were sleeping, but the water came in and the boat sank quickly," Vu Van Thin, the chief administrator of Quang Ninh province, said.

The Foreign Office said Mr McCormick's next of kin had been informed. A team from the British embassy is working with the local authorities and hospitals to establish whether other British citizens are involved.

A visit to Halong Bay, a Unesco World Heritage site with more than 1,900 limestone islets, is usually a magical event and the site is hugely important to the tourism industry in Vietnam.

One bay boat operator said the boat was "small and very cheap; there was a problem with the machinery on the boat". He added: "Some people disappeared. The police and local people are trying to find them." Police said the poor condition of the boat was to blame.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said after the investigation was completed that tour companies should improve safety measures at Halong Bay. "This is a very rare and very unfortunate accident," she said.

Yesterday, despite the tragedy, tourists were still taking boat trips.

Witnesses' accounts

The vessel, anchored in calm waters, sank almost instantly, survivors said. "The boat took one minute to sink," said Stefano Corda, 35, of Palermo, Italy. "We went to the exit, and the boat was almost vertical in the water."

Another Italian, Stefano Sacconi, was in the bathroom about 4.20am when he thought he felt the boat's hull buckling beneath him. "We started to hear tables and glasses falling from the top of the restaurant," he said. "My friend called me, 'Something's wrong here. The boat is going down'."

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