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Bitter-sweet times for ferry victims

Bitter-sweet times for ferry victims

T

HE NOTORIOUS fast boat to Siem Riep suffered another mishap when it capsized 4

km from shore leaving stranded passengers standing on the upturned hull for over

two hours in chest-deep water.

A tremendous thunderstorm whipped up the

usually placid Tonle Sap on the evening of July 1. Waves estimated to be up to

one meter high slammed against the side of the overcrowded ferry carrying 26

foreign tourists and 23 Cambodians including the crew. The boat immediately

began taking on water through open windows.

Frantic passengers tried to

stop the water from rushing in by covering the windows with items like knapsacks

and sheets of canvas.

Jeff McQuaid, an American tourist, said the

captain clearly panicked. "He was telling everyone to move to one side of the

boat then all of a sudden he was telling us to move to the other

side."

The captain also reportedly failed to steer the boat into the wind

and instead turned it parallel to the waves trying to get the boat closer to

shore. It was only a matter of minutes before the boat capsized sending the

passengers sitting on the roof into the water. Those still remaining inside were

turned upside down as the murky brown water filled the cabin completely.

Henneke Nooren from Holland said she pushed one woman out of the window

but as the boat rolled over she became disoriented and could not find her own

way out. "I swam and touched the floor and then swam and touched the roof. I

finally found an open window and pushed myself through but it was pretty

close."

With everyone safely out of the boat there was another moment of

panic as people tried to grab on to anything that was still floating.

McQuaid said: "It took a minute or two before we realized that we could

stand on the hull of the boat but by that time some of the Khmers who couldn't

swim were blown away clinging to a guitar case."

He said an Australian

girl eventually swam out with the boat's life ring and brought them back.

The passengers stood in chest deep water on the hull of the boat for

more than two hours firing off flares and clinging to each other before two

fishing boats appeared to take them to a village near Siem Reap. Miraculously

nobody was seriously injured.

It was well past 10 pm before they finally

arrived in Siem Reap where they received a warm and sympathetic welcome from

guest-house owners.

Many of the passengers lost everything but were

offered free accommodation and clothes from local people. Moto-drivers offered

to take some of the wearied passengers around the Angkor temples for free and

even bought them lunch and dinner.

The guards at the temple gates waived

their entrance fees for some of the passengers and Kampuchea Airlines flew some

of the more desperate tourists back to Phnom Penh for free.

Paul Rehel

from the Channel Island of Jersey said: "Just mention that you were on the boat

in the market and they'd give you post cards or drinks. Anything! They were

great."

While some of the tourists left the following day to clear up

things like lost passports and travelers cheques, most stayed on to see the

sights. None of the passengers returned to Phnom Penh by boat.

What

could have been a terrible tragedy and a disastrous holiday for the 26 foreign

tourists was clearly salvaged by the warm hospitality they received in Siem

Reap.

The ferry trip to Siem Reap has been plagued by incidents in the

last few months. In March, 60 foreigners had to wade ashore after the ferry

broke down in the milddle of the Tonle Sap. Then on May 14 angry fishmermen

fired on it after it snagged their nets.

Tickets at $16 were still being

sold at the main backpacker hotel the Capitol when the Post visited on July 12.

A man calling himself only Saphal said: "It is not my responsibility." But he

claimed to now be working with more reputable boat owners.

Sous Sokun, a

leading official in the maritime department of the Ministry of Transport only

said 50 percent of boats were licensed and the Ministry had no policy to act

against the owners of boats involved in accidents. He said the case was in the

hands of provincial authorities and it was up to victims to strike their own

deal with the owner on compensation.

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