HA LONG BAY, Vietnam — An anchored boat packed with sleeping travelers sank early Thursday in Vietnam’s scenic Ha Long Bay, killing 12 people from nine countries in the deadliest tour boat accident since the country opened to foreign visitors 25 years ago.
Vacationers from the U.S., Britain, Australia, Japan, Russia, France, Sweden and Switzerland have been confirmed dead, along with a Vietnamese tour guide, the government said.
All were trapped in the boat when it went down in about 30 feet (10 meters) of water close to several other vessels anchored near a small island about an hour’s sail offshore, an official said. Those who survived — nine foreigners and six locals — jumped into the water, where they were rescued by other tour boats.
“The boat took one minute to sink,” said Stefano Corda, 35, of Palermo, Italy, who fled with a friend after feeling the boat lurch and hearing noises from on deck.
“We went to the exit, and the boat was almost vertical,” Corda said. “I grabbed my friend, we went out and it was so fast.”
Ha Long Bay is one of the country’s top tourist attractions, drawing more than 5 million visitors a year to the province where 1,600 stunning jagged rock formations rise out of the bay, forming tiny islands. Many visitors stay overnight on wooden boats equipped with sleeping cabins and eating quarters.
Survivors reported seeing a wooden plank on their ship ripping away at around 5 a.m. as the vessel was anchored for the night, followed by gushing water inundating the boat and quickly pulling it under near Titov island, about an hour from mainland’s shore, said Vu Van Thin, chief administrator of Quang Ninh province. The boat sank in about 26 to 33 feet (8 to 10 meters) of water.
“Crew members tried to stop the water from coming in and alerted the tourists who were sleeping, but the water came in and the boat sank quickly,” Thin said. “All of the 12 people who died were in the cabins.”
Italian traveler Stefano Sacconi, 33, of Rome was in the bathroom around 4:20 a.m. when he thought he felt the boat buckling. He returned to bed in a cabin he was sharing with Corda.
“After 20 minutes, we started to hear tables and glasses falling from the top of the restaurant,” he said. “After that, my friend went out. He called me, ’Come up! Come up! Something’s wrong here! The boat is going down!” ’
They jumped from the junk and swam to another nearby ship.
There were 27 people, including six crew members, aboard the boat and all have been accounted for, Thin said. The vessel, which is owned by Truong Hai Co., was anchored alongside dozens of other cruise boats and weather conditions were calm at the time of the sinking.
The dead have been sent to Bai Chay Hospital for identification, where survivors received treatment for minor injuries, said Ngo Van Hung, director of Ha Long Bay’s management board.
The official Vietnam News Agency published the victims’ names and ages, most of them aged 20 to 25. Seven were women. They include a Briton, two Americans, one Japanese, one French, two Swedes, two Russians, one Swiss and one person of Vietnamese origin living in Australia, according to the government.
“This is a very rare and very unfortunate accident,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga. She said tour companies should improve safety measures in Ha Long Bay.
Police have launched a criminal investigation into the cause of the accident, which remained unclear Thursday.
Bai Chay Hospital deputy director, Giang Quoc Duy, said survivors “were in a panic.”
“They were given first aid treatment and have already returned to their hotels,” he said.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry confirmed the survivors as two Danes, one German, two Italians, one American, one Australian, one French and one Swiss.
Ha Long Bay, a U.N. World Heritage site dotted with limestone formations, is located near the Chinese border in the Gulf of Tonkin about three hours east of the capital, Hanoi.
More than 100 cruise boats are licensed to offer overnight service there, and last year the province received 5.4 million visitors, nearly half of them foreigners, according to government websites.
The bay has seen boats go down in the past. In 2009, a tour boat sank during a storm, killing five, including three foreign vacationers. In 2006, a powerful wind storm capsized several boats, killing 13 people, though no tourists were among the dead. In 2002, strong winds capsized two tourist boats, killing several foreigners.