Drowning in sorrow

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Guo Liangcai's voice never stopped quavering.

"I don't know how I will handle the truth," he told Thanh Nien Weekly over the phone last Tuesday.

The 40-year-old Chinese businessman spoke Vietnamese with an accent, and the pain in his voice was palpable.

It had been three days since his life changed in an instant - the elation of celebrating his son's third birthday turn into an unimaginable tragedy of having to bury his wife, son, five-year-old daughter, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law, his brother-in-law, his brother-in-law's wife and their two children.

And that was not all.

Leaving behind a distraught father-in-law, Guo Liangcai returned to the southern province of Binh Duong to take the bodies of two brothers and two friends back to China.

Guo said he could barely remember what exactly happened last Friday.

"It was just a nightmare too horrible to remember."

The nightmare is all too real.

The owner of a business that makes rice cookers and one who had made profitable real estate investments, Guo had organized an elaborate celebration of his son's third birthday on a double-decker boat used as a floating restaurant at the Din Ky Tourism Area in Binh Duong Province on Friday evening.

At around 7 p.m., just 100 meters away from the wharf it had just left in pouring rain and strong winds, the boat capsized with 28 people on board and sank in the Saigon River in Binh Duong, around 19 miles (30 kilometers) northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.

Sixteen people died, and Guo was one of the 12 who managed to swim to safety. The last body, that of a nine-year-old boy, was found Monday.

The boat captain, who did not have a proper operating license, and two other boat company staff have been detained pending investigations into the accident. The vessel, which can carry up to 75 people, was salvaged Tuesday by hundreds of soldiers and police.

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Binh Duong authorities have suspended the unlicensed port managed by Din Ky, a local tourism firm, in Binh Nham Commune.

The tragedy has shocked the nation and generated widespread concern about the safety of many tourist boats operating in the country.

Lam, a 51-year-old owner of a ceramics company in Binh Duong, had attended many parties on the boat. He said, "I don't know how he [Guo] will come to grips with his tragedy in the future."

Guo, however, seems aware of what lies ahead. He said he had to face a new life, no matter how harsh it would be.

"I miss my wife, my children, my brothers, and my friends. I know the rest of my life will be too tough without them."

"But my friends have been standing by me and I'm grateful," Guo said, adding, "I have to continue to live anyway."

 CAPSIZED BOAT OWNER HAD CHECKERED PAST

Police announced Tuesday that the owner of the boat that capsized on the Saigon River last weekend, killing 16, had a history of dodging fines and flouting safety regulations.

Police in the southern Binh Duong Province and investigators from the Ministry of Public Security towed the salvaged remains of the Din Ky double-decker boat from Thuan An District to Thu Dau Mot Town for a forensic investigation.

A boat, which was carrying 28 passengers celebrating the birthday of a three-year-old, capsized May 24 amidst strong winds and heavy rain on the Saigon River.

12 people managed to swim to shore, while the other 16, including four Chinese nationals, drowned trapped inside the boat. By Monday, the bodies of five children and seven women had been recovered.

According to a report from Binh Duong Transport Department inspectors, the boat belonged to an unlicensed fleet operated by the Din Ky Eco Tourism Resort in Binh Duong's Binh Nham Commune.

In January 2009, the resort was fined on two separate occasions for violations relating to their fleet of four restaurant boats.

First, investigators wrote up the resort for operating boats without proper licenses.

Days later, they returned and fined Din Ky for illegally modifying the ships.

The resort was told to suspend its boating concession until it had obtained proper licenses. But business continued and fines remain unpaid.

It is not clear why further action was not taken.

Early this year, transport inspectors fined Din Ky for operating the fleet from an unlicensed dock and again ordered them to suspend operations.

Last week, they issued the same order, following the fatal accident.

Dam Trong Cuong, vice director of Binh Duong's Department of Transport, said local authorities refused to give the resort a license to operate out of its makeshift dock because it was situated in a dangerous location.

He said the resort has operated the illegal dock for years despite warnings, fines and orders to suspend operations.

Following the accident, police arrested Le Van Duc, who piloted the vessel on the night of the incident, Le Van Quang, the manager of the boat, and Dinh Van Quan, who managed the Din Ky fleet.

Police have since claimed that Duc, who was never licensed as a boat captain, was not qualified to pilot a floating restaurant. They also found that the vessel's registration certificate expired in February.

In the meantime, Chau Hoan Tam, the resort's owner, said he has sent apologies and financial support to the victims' families.

"We know it's impossible to compensate the loss of a human life, no matter how much money we spend, but we'll try our best," he said. "We really hope that the victims' families will forgive us."

Tam said the usual captain was sick and Quang had assigned Duc to pilot the vessel.

He also blamed his fleet manager for failing to have the boat inspected and registered after its certificate expired.

Pham Ninh, who directs the agency responsible for registering tourist boats on the Saigon River, said the boat's registration documents showed that it satisfied all requirements.

When asked about claims that the boat's top-heavy design had caused it to capsize in the wind, Ninh said that the boat may have been modified after it was registered and inspected.

On May 24, Tran Van Cuu, director of Inland Waterway Department under the Transport Ministry admitted that local authorities must also be held responsible for their role in the tragedy.

Cuu did not absolve his own agency or tourism officials that issued business licenses to Din Ky for their role in the accident.

Reported by Tuan Dat-Dinh Muoi-Mai Tram

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