TOKYO — The head of the company that operated a sightseeing boat that sank in northern Japan with 26 people on board said Wednesday he approved the trip despite a broken communications device and bad weather forecast, as officials were investigating previous accidents involving the company.
The Kazu 1 sightseeing boat with two crew members was taking 24 passengers, including two children, on a scenic tour of Shiretoko National Park, northeast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, when he sent a distress call on Saturday afternoon indicating that he was sinking.
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The area, near Kashuni Waterfall, is a difficult place to maneuver due to its rocky coastline and high tide.
Rescuers located 11 bodies on Sunday, including that of a 3-year-old girl, but did not find the boat. Experts say the missing people may have been trapped inside the ship.
Seiichi Katsurada, president of the tour boat company, knelt on the ground during a press conference to apologize. “We caused a disastrous accident, and I’m really sorry,” he said.
He said he approved of the captain’s plan to continue the tour despite forecasts of 10ft waves in the afternoon, as the waters in their home port were calm in the morning. He said the tour plan could be changed by the captain if the weather deteriorates.
“In hindsight, it was the wrong decision,” he said.
Katsurada said a wireless device at the company’s office was broken and the boat lacked a satellite phone, making communications between the ship and the company difficult. But he said he believed the captain could use his mobile phone and staff from other boat operators could help with communications.
However, the boat was alone on Saturday afternoon as local fishermen canceled operations due to warnings of high winds and waves, while the other three cruise lines had yet to start their season.
The Department of Transport said the boat’s operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruiser, had two accidents in the past year, including one involving the sunken boat’s captain, Noriyuki Toyoda. The ministry said it was reviewing the company’s safety standards and its decision to continue with the tour despite the forecast bad weather.
The Coast Guard said it was gathering evidence of alleged professional negligence in the crash.
Witnesses say the company’s ownership has changed and most of its former crew members have quit. Katsurada said he took over the business from a relative five years ago and had up to a dozen crew, but now only has a few captains and deck crew, including Toyoda, who was previously an amphibious vehicle operator and was still new to the tricky. Shiretoko Coast.
Koya Sugawara, head of Dolphin, another tour boat operator, said Shiretoko’s waters require difficult maneuvering by boats as they approach the rocky shore while dodging salmon fishing nets. He told state broadcaster NHK that Katsurada’s company often ignores a cooperation agreement between the four local tour operators for security reasons and operates on its own.
An employee of another tour boat company who radioed from his office with the Kazu 1 as it began to have trouble described growing panic.
At first, the captain, Toyoda, calmly said his boat was near the waterfall and his return to port would be delayed, the employee told the Asahi newspaper. About 10 minutes later, the captain desperately ordered the other crew member to “Have everyone put on life jackets!”
Toyoda then said the boat was taking on water and was in danger of sinking and its engine had stalled, and the employee said he had made an emergency call to the coast guard to request a rescue.