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Death toll rises in Japan boat accident

April 25, 2022

Rescuers are still searching for over a dozen people who were on a tour boat when it sank in northern Japan. Hopes for survivors are dwindling, however, as the region's waters are only a few degrees above freezing point.

An aerial photo shows a search in Shari Town, Hokkaido Prefecture on April 24, 2022.
Questions are growing as to why the boat tour went ahead despite choppy weather off Japan's HokkaidoImage: Masamine Kawaguchi/AP/picture alliance

A child has been confirmed dead in a fatal weekend boat accident that occurred in northeastern Japan, authorities confirmed on Monday, raising the death toll to 11.

The Kazu 1, a tourist boat with 26 people on board, including two children, went missing on Saturday after it hit rough seas in the icy waters off the Shiretoko Peninsula.

The area, located off the Japanese island of Hokkaido, is known as a hazardous location for boats to maneuver due to strong tides and a rocky coastline.

A distress call from the boat on Saturday afternoon prompted extensive rescue efforts and sparked national concern, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ending his attendance at a summit and returning to Tokyo.

The signal had relayed that the vessel's bow was taking in water and that the ship was tilting to one side. The Kazu 1 remained unreachable after the call, according to authorities.

Japan's coast guard and police are continuing search operations with helicopters and ships but hopes are fading for possible survivors due to the icy temperatures in the remote area.

Rescuers attend to a person found on a rocky area near the tip of Shiretoko Peninsula in northern Japan of Hokkaido Sunday, April 24, 2022
Rescuers attend to a person found on a rocky area near the tip of Shiretoko Peninsula in northern Japan Image: Regional Japan Coast Guard Headquarters/AP/picture alliance

Tour despite worsening weather

The Kazu 1 set sail on Saturday morning for a cruise of the Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO world heritage site renowned for its biodiversity.

But while some local fishing boats in the area returned to shore to avoid worsening weather conditions, the tour boat went ahead for unclear reasons.

Rescuers, including Japanese authorities and local volunteers, reached the scene of the accident about four hours after the first distress signal was sent, delayed in part by the rough sea and hampered by logistics.

By Sunday evening, rescuers recovered the bodies of seven men and three women, but did not confirm their identities.

Japan's Transport Ministry is investigating the tour company and the cause of the accident. News agency AFP reported that the captain of Kazu 1 was probed for endangering traffic last June after the boat ran aground in shallow waters.

The father of one of the people on board, Tsuyoshi Suzuki, told local media his 22-year-old son had taken the trip and planned to propose to his girlfriend on the boat.

 "I learned that my son brought a ring and decided to propose to her on the trip as a surprise," Suzuki told local station Hokkaido Broadcasting. "I know there is no hope, but I just want them to be found together."

sl/rs (AFP, AP)