Hopes fade for 18 sailors trapped in sunken ship off Hong Kong

10:29, 24 March 2008
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Their vessel sank after a weekend collision at sea

Hopes faded on Monday for 18 Ukrainian crew trapped in their ship on the ocean floor off Hong Kong, where their vessel sank after a weekend collision at sea, according to AFP.

Divers and marine rescuers hoped the sailors could have found an air pocket in their doomed tugboat after the accident on Saturday night, but were racing against the clock more than 36 hours after the disaster.

The Naftogaz-67, a Ukrainian tug, was overturned on the ocean floor at a depth of 37 metres (120 feet) after the wreck, and officials said the men could have found air pockets in the engine room and cabins.

But divers have reported no response from inside the doomed vessel, which was carrying 24 Ukrainian crew and one Chinese sailor. Six Ukrainians and the Chinese sailor were rescued.

Their boat collided with a China-registered cargo ship, the Yao-Hai, late Saturday. The South China Morning Post reported that divers had made at least nine attempts to get inside the ship through an opened hatch.

If the sailors do not survive, it would be the worst marine disaster for decades in the busy waterways of Hong Kong, one of the world`s leading ports and maritime centres.

Authorities announced there would be a press conference about the rescue efforts at 0830 GMT.

At Simferopol in Ukraine, the president of the energy company Chornomornaftegaz which owns the ship expressed hopes Sunday for the missing crew.

"We have not lost hope of finding the other sailors alive, as long as they are in the interior (of the ship) where there are still pockets of air," said Anatoly Prisiazhnyuk, who said he spoke by telephone with the ship`s captain.

The captain, who was among those rescued, reportedly blamed the Chinese ship for the collision, saying it had refused to give his tug the right of way.

"He had received from the controller permission to pass. The Chinese cargo ship should have let it pass, but it did not do that," said Prisiazhnyuk.

Ukraine said it would send investigators to the scene on Sunday, Interfax reported from Kiev.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called on his government to support the Chinese rescuers and "provide medical aide and all that is needed for the Ukrainian sailors who have been rescued," said his spokeswoman Irina Vannikova.

The Naftogaz-67 had reportedly been operating since 2002 for the Swiss company Fortranse Ltd in the South China Sea between China, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Post cited Hong Kong`s marine department saying that the ship had been detained here in September 2003 because it lacked "an efficient escape system" as well as emergency breathing apparatus.

In an editorial, the paper said the collision would inevitably raise local concerns.

"Given the role our surrounding waters play in our lives -- whether through trade, fishing or pleasure boating -- answers are quickly needed to placate safety concerns," it said.


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