By Marton Dunai BUDAPEST, June 6 (Reuters) – The captain of a cruise liner involved in a fatal collision with a pleasure boat on the River Danube in Budapest last week had captained a boat that was in an accident in the Netherlands in April, Hungarian prosecutors said on Thursday.
It is unclear what caused the worst accident in more than half a century on the Danube, Europe’s longest river and an increasingly popular route for massive hotel cruisers. Police are investigating.
The Viking Sigyn’s captain, a 64-year-old Ukrainian man identified by police as C. Yuriy from Odessa, was arrested last week in Budapest and is being held as a suspect. His lawyers said he is devastated but did nothing wrong. They could not be reached for comment.
The prosecutors also said in a statement that the captain had “deleted data from his phone” after the collision on May 29, which killed 28 people, most of them South Korean tourists.
They said it was unclear whether the data was related to the accident.
The Mermaid, carrying South Koreans on a pleasure cruise, capsized and sank after being struck by the larger Viking Sigyn.
Hungarian prosecutors said they had learned through an EU judicial network that the captain was also captain of a boat that was in an accident in the Netherlands on April 1.
Media reports said that in the incident referred to the Viking Idun which collided with a cargo vessel while sailing from Antwerp to Ghent. According to a Viking statement cited in media nobody on the Idun was injured.
Swiss-based Viking Cruises Ltd, which owns the Viking Sigyn as well as the Viking Idun, said last week it was cooperating with Hungarian investigators and could not comment while a criminal case was under way.
Viking spokespeople did not immediately reply to Reuters questions seeking fresh comment. The operator of The Mermaid has not responded to requests for comment on the accident.
Seven Koreans were rescued alive. Seventeen bodies have been recovered and 11 people are officially listed as missing and presumed dead, including a Korean child and two Hungarian crew.
News website Atlatszo.hu said police have interviewed close to 300 witnesses and analyzed 40 CCTV recordings. Police spokesman Kristof Gal said that was a plausible ballpark figure, without confirming the precise numbers.
The Budapest disaster occurred in heavy rain. In the week since, flooding on the river has receded, allowing divers to reach the wreck and recover some of the bodies. Corpses have also begun to surface at the wreck site and further downstream.
South Korea’s practice of fingerprinting all adult citizens has helped forensic experts identify all of the bodies recovered so far, officials said on Thursday.
Police lieutenant-colonel Zsuzsanna Kreitz said that in such accidents, corpses are damaged and identification through photographs and ID cards becomes impossible. “We use fingerprints, DNA and dental records instead,” she said.
Work continued to salvage the ship as soon as possible, said Nandor Jasenszky, spokesman of the counter-terrorism angency TEK, which coordinates the recovery operation.
Divers welded hooks and inserted rods under the sunken Mermaid, their work hampered by strong currents and zero visibility in the river. Once the gear is in place, a giant floating salvage crane will be used to lift the wreck.
That could come as early as Friday, Jasenszky said, adding that the conditions on the river remain unpredictable so delays are quite possible – citing a huge piece of wood debris that got caught up near the Mermaid on Thursday.
“You must be prepared for anything and everything on the Danube,” he said. “You can’t stick to plans down to the second.” (Additional reporting by Krisztina ThanEditing by Frances Kerry)
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