Cruise ship captain ‘not concentrating before fatal Danube River crash’

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The captain of a river cruise ship was not concentrating on his steering duties for at least five minutes as it collided with a sightseeing boat in Budapest last summer, Hungarian prosecutors have said at the opening of his trial.

Twenty-seven people, mostly tourists from South Korea, died in the May collision on the Danube River.

The Ukrainian captain, identified during the court session as Yuriy Chaplinsky, has been charged by prosecutors with negligent endangerment of water traffic leading to a fatal mass catastrophe and 35 counts of failing to give assistance.

Chaplinsky, who has denied responsibility for the collision, rejected the prosecution’s offer of a nine-year prison term and a nine-year ban on operating ships if he accepted the charges and resigned his right to a trial.

The media prepares for the preliminary hearing of the captain of the Viking Sigyn river cruiser in Pest Central District Court in Budapest, Hungary
The media prepares for the preliminary hearing of the captain of the Viking Sigyn river cruiser in Pest Central District Court in Budapest (Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP)

Just seven of the 33 South Korean tourists aboard the Hableany (Mermaid) sightseeing boat survived the May 29 night-time collision at Budapest’s Margit Bridge, near Hungary’s parliament building, which also killed the boat’s two-man Hungarian crew.

A female South Korean tourist is still missing.

Prosecutors said the 64-year-old captain did not pay attention to his duties steering the Viking Sigyn cruise ship for at least five minutes, during which his ship collided with and sank the much smaller tour boat.

The captain “did not notice the otherwise clearly visible Hableany on the Viking Sigyn’s radar … even when it was 50 metres away”, prosecutor Miklos Novaki said, adding that Chaplinsky became aware of the collision only because of the jolt caused by the impact and from the cries of alarm in English by some of the cruise ship’s passengers at the bow of the vessel.

Prosecutors quoted a note from shipping authorities calling for the Hableany to add a second sailor to its crew, but only the captain and one sailor were aboard when the sightseeing boat began its last journey.

The Hableany “should not even have left the dock”, Novaki said.

Chaplinsky’s lawyer, Gabor Toth, read out a long list of witnesses the defence seeks testimony from, including some who would reportedly contradict the prosecutors’ claim that the captain did not quickly order his crew to begin rescue attempts of the people on the Hableany.

Judge Judit Leona Nemeth leads the preliminary hearing of the captain of the Viking Sigyn river cruiser in the Hableany case in Pest Central District Court in Budapest, Hungary
Judge Judit Leona Nemeth leads the preliminary hearing at Pest Central District Court (Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP)

After being allowed into the courtroom for a few minutes, the judge, citing concerns about coronavirus, ordered members of the media and spectators to move to a separate room to follow proceedings.

The Hableany, which prosecutors said sank in less than 30 seconds, was raised out of the Danube by a huge floating crane on June 11, with divers from South Korea assisting their Hungarian colleagues in recovering several bodies that were still aboard the sunken tour boat.

Some of the victims’ bodies were found weeks after the crash more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) downstream.

In a separate case, prosecutors are also investigating the captain of the Viking Idun, a sister ship of the Viking Sigyn, which arrived at the scene of the collision shortly after the event.

The captain, who has not been identified, is suspected of failing to stop and provide assistance to anyone in the water who may have been in need of rescue.

Chaplinsky’s trial is scheduled to continue on April 30.

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