Sunken boat reveals flaw in tour operator’s communication system

The mobile phone of the captain of a tour boat that sank off Hokkaido was inaccessible for most of the ship’s final voyage, sources familiar with the matter said, pointing to an apparent failure by the operator to handle its communication system correctly.

The discovery came as 12 people were still missing on Sunday after the 19-tonne Kazu I disappeared in rough waters while visiting the scenic Shiretoko Peninsula on April 23.

The discovery revealed a series of flaws in the communications system of operator Shiretoko Yuransen, including a broken radio antenna at his desk on the day of the crash.

It was also discovered that an employee of Shiretoko Yuransen did not know the number of the satellite cell phone which was allegedly kept on the boat, the sources said.

Three days before the accident, Noriyuki Toyoda, the 54-year-old captain of the Kazu I, obtained permission from a regulator to use his cell phone rather than the satellite cell phone on the boat as a means of communication, according to the transportation department.

The regulator approved the change because Toyoda said the cellphone would be accessible at sea, the ministry said.

A call requesting help from the Japanese Coast Guard was made using a passenger’s mobile phone, coast guard sources said. A distress call from the Kazu I’s radio was also picked up by another boat operator.

A woman visits a site where the bodies of victims of a boat accident are placed in Shari, Hokkaido on Saturday. | KYODO

The boat had 26 people on board in total. So far, the bodies of 14 people have been found since contact with the sunken boat.

The boat was found Friday on a seabed near the peninsula at a depth of around 115 to 120 meters, where visibility is only 1 to 2 meters.

The divers of the coast guard rescue special team can only reach a depth of 60 meters. Specially trained divers from the private sector can be invited to participate in the operation.

According to the coastguard, the boat was found on the seabed about 1 kilometer west-northwest of a waterfall on the peninsula, at the same place where the distress call was made .

On Sunday, the Coast Guard, Maritime Self-Defense Force and Hokkaido Prefectural Police continued to search the waters near the Kazu I’s resting place using underwater cameras. Searches for missing persons using ships and aircraft were also continuing.

The Coastguard is investigating the incident, with the operator likely to face charges of professional negligence resulting in death.

Shiretoko Yuransen chairman Seiichi Katsurada publicly apologized on Wednesday, admitting his decision to give the go-ahead for the ship’s departure despite the risk of bad weather was inappropriate.

On Saturday, people laid flowers at a gymnasium in the city of Shari, Hokkaido, where the bodies of the victims had been placed. Among the visitors was Katsunori Nojiri, 54, head of a local tourism association.

“My heart aches when I think of the feelings of the bereaved. I hope the missing people will be found as soon as possible,” he said.

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