Thailand recovers bodies, searches for more missing sailors from sunken warship

On Tuesday, another crewman was rescued after nearly two days adrift.
By RFA Staff and BenarNews
2022.12.20
Bangkok
Thailand recovers bodies, searches for more missing sailors from sunken warship Paramedics prepare a rescued crewman from the HTMS Sukhothai to be airlifted to a hospital in Chonburi province from Prachuap Khiri Khan province, Thailand, Dec. 20, 2022.
Nava Sangthong/BenarNews

UPDATED AT 9:00 p.m. ET ON 12-20-2022

Thai Navy rescuers recovered the bodies of six sailors who died after a warship sank on Sunday in the Gulf of Thailand, Royal Thai Navy officials said late Tuesday, adding that the search continued for the remaining 23 missing crew.

They also admitted there weren’t enough life vests aboard the ship.

Search teams were racing against time to find the missing crew of the HTMS Sukhothai which sank about 20 miles (32 kilometers) off the coast of Prachuap Khiri Khan province on Sunday evening, officials said. On Monday 75 crew were rescued and one on Tuesday.

The Sukhothai’s engines and power generators failed after the ship took on water from severe flooding after being struck by 2-4 meter waves (6.5-13-foot) waves, officials said.

Officials on Tuesday said two cargo ships also sank in nearby waters over the weekend.

Navy chief of staff Adm. Cholatit Navanukroa said 81 of the 105 people on the warship had been accounted for, nearly 48 hours after the sinking. 

“We are sure the missing men still have hope. We will use all the valuable time we have to search for them,” he said.

relatives.jpeg
Relatives of missing crewmen wait for news at Bang Saphan Pier in Prachuap Khiri Khan district during the search for survivors of a sunken Thai Navy ship, the HTMS Sukhothai, Dec. 20, 2022. Credit: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

‘Not sufficient life vests’

A relative of a missing sailor, however, claimed that the Sukhothai did not have proper equipment for all sailors aboard.

“There were not sufficient life vests, we felt disheartened. How can you make us parents keep hope?” Malinee Poodpong told a Navy official.

The Navy said the ship was on a special mission and 30 Marines and Coast Guard troops were added to the normal crew.

“In the case of life vests, some of the crew did not have one, but they had lifebuoys [flotation devices],” Pichai, the First Naval Region commander, said Tuesday.

Navy commander Adm. Choengchai Chomchoengpaet said the ship had life rafts, which could be operated manually or would inflate when dropped into the sea.

“The seamen with life vests helped release the life rafts for those who did not have vests,” Choengchai said Tuesday. “HTMS Kraburi saved 75 men at that time while 30 were missing.”

Despite being hampered by rough seas, the Kraburi was able to rescue most of the crew from the Sukhothai on Sunday after their ship sank.

A Navy officer told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service, that each regular crew member carries a life vest at all times.

Choengchai defended the 35-year-old U.S.-made corvette as operational and seaworthy. 

“All systems were intact and functional,” Choengchai told reporters.

Since the Sukhothai sank, the Navy has been conducting search-and-rescue missions around the clock.

On Tuesday, four warships, helicopters, maritime patrol planes and drones were deployed over a 900 square-mile grid, officials said. An official said the waters were relatively calm.

Choengchai said the Navy would inspect the ship, which sank 40 meters (130 feet), before determining whether a recovery operation could be done.

The officers thanked the Malaysian, British and U.S. navies for offering to help with the search.

On Monday, a doctor in Prachuap Khiri Khan said 15 rescued crew members were treated for injuries including three who suffered broken bones.

Support for ship’s captain

Naval officials meanwhile offered support for the Sukhothai’s captain, Cmdr. Pichitchai Teaunnadee, saying he tried to save the ship.

“The incident happened quickly. The ship listed to the left and it could not release life rafts. The right deck was battered by strong winds and could not operate the rafts easily,” Adm. Adoong Pan-iam, the commander of the Navy’s Royal Thai Fleet, said Tuesday.

“The captain confirmed following all steps to troubleshoot but to no avail. Finally, they have to abandon the ship.”

Pichitchai is among the survivors.

Designated FSG-442, the Sukhothai is one of the two Royal Thai Navy corvettes built in Tacoma, Washington. Commissioned in 1987, it was capable of conducting surface-to-air, surface-to-surface and anti-submarine warfare.

The sinking was the first of a Thai warship in 77 years.

Bangkok media reported that the HTMS Samui sank after being struck by a U.S. torpedo near Malaysia in 1945, killing 31 sailors. Four years earlier, the French Navy attacked Thai ships during the Franco-Thai War, sinking two ships and heavily damaging a third.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.

Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this story.

This story has been updated to include the Thai Navy's corrected numbers.

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