18 Sailors Trapped and Feared Dead

ReutersHong Kong rescue vessels preparing to move the capsized tugboat, Neftegaz 67, to shallower waters on Monday.
HONG KONG -- Eighteen Ukrainian sailors were feared dead Monday after they were trapped underwater in their capsized tugboat in Hong Kong for nearly two full days amid strong currents, rescue officials said.

The sailors would have survived 12 hours after the accident late Saturday, based on the current water temperature of 17 degrees Celsius at the 37-meter depth of the wreck, Roger Tupper, director of Hong Kong's marine department, told reporters Monday.

He said rescue divers have continuously knocked on the hull of the ship but that the sailors had not signaled back.

"Their chances for survival are very slim," said spokeswoman Zhang Jianwen of China's Guangzhou Salvage Bureau, which is assisting Hong Kong rescue officials.

Tupper said, however, that rescuers would continue their efforts until the Ukrainian vessel is retrieved and the bodies are located.

He said bad conditions and the upside-down position of the wreck hindered rescue efforts.

"The current is very strong. The visibility is very, very short. It's completely dark. Even in daylight, it's absolutely black down 37 meters," Tupper said.

Zhang said the Guangzhou Salvage Bureau's divers were tying up the Ukrainian tugboat and preparing it for a move to shallower waters to ease rescue efforts, he said.

Preparation for the move was expected to take several days, and a large Chinese salvage ship will be dispatched to Hong Kong from nearby waters Friday, Zhang said. He said the salvage ship would arrive Friday or Saturday.

The trapped sailors are between the ages of 21 and 54, according to information released by Hong Kong's marine department. Their identities were not immediately available.

The tugboat, Neftegaz 67, sank late Saturday when it collided with Chinese cargo ship Yao Hai in waters northwest of Hong Kong's outlying Lantau Island.

The 80-meter Ukrainian vessel sank quickly, but the Chinese ship suffered only bow damage and stayed afloat, officials said. Only seven of the 25 on the Ukrainian ship were found.

The Neftegaz 67 was detained in Hong Kong in September 2003 for safety problems, according to documents from Hong Kong's Marine Department.

The documents said the ship did not provide "means of escape" or "escape breathing apparatus," and that vessel personnel were not familiar with safety procedures.

It was not immediately clear if those problems were addressed during the detention. Government spokeswoman Heidi Liu said she could not immediately comment. People who answered the phone at Chernomorneftegaz, the Ukrainian oil and gas exploration company that operates Neftegaz 67, hung up on several call attempts. "We are hoping for the best," Chernomorneftegaz chairman Anatoly Prisyazhnyuk said in televised comments Monday.

Ukraine's ambassador to China, Serhiy Kamyshev, visited the site of the accident Monday. He told reporters afterward that 20 marine experts from Ukraine would arrive in Hong Kong on Tuesday, including some from Chernomorneftegaz, to assist with rescue efforts.

The cause of the Saturday's accident was not immediately clear. Officials say weather conditions were reasonable at the time of the accident and that neither ship was overloaded.