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Tour guide says passengers tilted cruise boat

Tour guide says passengers tilted cruise boat

T HE hired guide who survived the Moyura cruise boat tragedy - which overturned on

the Mekong Feb 26 killing four French tourists - says the passengers themselves contributed

to the accident.

Som Thol was hired by Ratana Tours to take 22 French tourists - all in their 60s

or older - on a Mekong River cruise.

The Moyura overturned around 5:30pm near an island in the Mekong south of the Cambodiana

Hotel.

Pierre and Odette Brassier, Gabrielle Fourvel and Rémy Giraudon drowned.

The French Embassy refused to allow interviews with survivors. Som Thol is the only

person who was on the boat to talk to the press.

He said that the boat was making a sweeping left turn to head back to Phnom Penh.

The tourists crowded to one side of the boat to take photos of children playing in

the water. Witnesses back up this claim.

Thol - who works part-time at the Ministry of Tourism and part-time as a tour guide

- said the boat then overturned.

French Embassy spokesman Marcel Escure angrily disagreed: "As the boat was turning,

the passengers who were seated in chairs which were not fixed to the deck all slid

to one side. They found themselves falling one on top of the other."

"These are just stories invented by the police," he said of reports that

the passengers had tilted the boat. "You cannot believe everything they say."

"There were more people on one side of the boat than on the other," said

a witness, Ngueng Yang Keu, who lives in nearby Koh Norear village. "As the

boat started to make its turn, some people on the heavier side of the boat started

to stand up to wave to the children in the water and take photographs."

"The only reason was that there were too many people on one side," added

Chan Virak, who also saw the accident happen. "When the tourists wanted to take

photographs, they moved to one side of the boat which then turned over."

The witnesses also said the Moyura made a smooth U-turn and not the "sharp maneuver"

reported by the French Embassy.

Escure said that the boat was being piloted by two Khmer boys, and that Thol had

been told of this by passengers but did nothing about it.

He also said that one of the bamboo "stabilizers" had snapped off.

However, the Post visited the Phnom Penh Water Traffic Police station near the site

of the accident where the boat had been taken. Both bamboo stabilizers were attached

to its sides.

Citing police reports and personal accounts given by the French survivors, Escure

said that when the boat was making an abrupt maneuver it capsized as the bamboo runners

broke off.

Escure said that the passengers told the Embassy that one boy was operating the boat's

engine and another was steering.

Ngueng Yang Yoi, who was one of the first to reach the victims of the accident by

fishing boat, said he "had never seen any tourist boats piloted by young boys,

except this one." Yang Yoi said he saw a boy he reckoned to be around 16 swim

to the bank and run off.

"I, along with other Embassy officials including the Ambassador, have done several

excursions on the river," Escure said. "I have often seen that young boys

were piloting those boats."

Thol, however, said he did not see two children piloting the boat. He said he did

notice who was piloting.

Thol said that the Moyura's captain, Sok Chea - who is nicknamed "Mr Map"

- had used his two sons to help him lay the gangplanks when the passengers boarded

in front of Ounnaloam Pagoda.

The Post could not find Sok Chea. Police reports said that there were four Khmers

on board - Chea, his wife and their two sons. Police told the Post that all four

had fled.

The manager of Ratana Tours, Prum Sokhadary, accused local authorities, French Embassy

officials and the press of smearing her business's reputation.

"Many people falsified that a child drove the boat," she said. "It

is hard to believe, you know, that a child would be allowed to be a pilot. It is

not true."

She said she was sorry about the deaths of the French tourists, but said they had

caused the boat to topple by rushing to one side in the excitement of seeing children

in the water.

"It is not my fault. It is their fault. After the accident, they didn't complain

to me at all. I think they knew about their error, because they made the boat sink."

The French Embassy said that Ratana Tours was an unlicensed operator.

Sokhadary showed the Post an operating license which was issued in 1992 by the Kampuchea

Tourism office, and a 1995 Ministry of Tourism license that had expired on Jan 11.

"If the ministry said eleven is day and number one is January, it means my license

has expired by just one month - it doesn't mean I have no license," she claimed.

"Same like you, if you get a visa to Cambodia, and if the visa expires by only

one or two days, it doesn't mean you don't have visa to come to Cambodia."

The day after the accident, 17 of the 18 French survivors continued their trip to

Siem Reap to take in the ruins at Angkor.

Embassy spokesman Escure said that the tourists had only bought their tour package

with Ratana upon arrival in Phnom Penh, and had organized their own travel arrangements

for Siem Reap.

"The decision to travel to Siem Reap was taken by the tourists independently

of Ratana travel agency," he said.

However, Sokhadary said that the 22 tourists had arranged their Ratana tour package

before they left France, and that 17 of the survivors had continued to Siem Reap

after the accident. She showed the Post a receipt from Ratana's partner agency in

France, Consulte Travel; a Siem Reap hotel bill for 17 people; 17 Pochentong airport

tax departure chits; and 17 one-day Angkor Tourist Office ticket stubs.

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