DANANG, Vietnam – "Don't worry. Everything's OK."
Those words, spoken over a radio across hundreds of miles, were among the last that Nguyen Ut Thanh, a fishing boat captain, spoke to his wife. Thanh is believed to have died hours later in Typhoon Chanchu, which killed at least 87 people across Asia. Nearly 200 Vietnamese fishermen were also missing and presumed dead.
The typhoon raged across the South China Sea this past week, then weakened into a tropical storm and lost strength Saturday off southern Japan. It killed Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Japanese, and forced the evacuation of 1 million people in China.
On Saturday, Chinese state media said a Chinese rescue ship saved 97 Vietnamese fishermen in the South China Sea, and continued to search for other missing Vietnamese. It was unclear if the 97 fishermen were among almost 200 reported missing by authorities in the Vietnamese port city of Danang.
China's official Xinhua News Agency also reported that the rescue ship recovered 18 bodies.
Nguyen Ba Luong, a coast guard official in Danang, and Tran Van Huy, director of Danang's Fisheries Department, said they had not heard of the reports that 97 Vietnamese fishermen had been rescued.
Officials and relatives in Danang struggled to determine what happened to dozens of fishermen whose vessels sank in the storm, far from home. People sat beside radio equipment in the kitchen of one house, listening intently to scratchy bursts of talk between fishing vessels searching for survivors in the choppy seas.
The missing fishermen were in two groups of boats in the South China Sea. Authorities in Danang, the biggest city in central Vietnam, said 198 remained missing. At least two dozen bodies have been recovered.
"It's been several days. I think the chances of survival of the missing fishermen are very slim," said Huy at Danang's Fisheries Department.
Seated in her Danang home, hands folded on her lap, Le Thi Hue said she last spoke by radio to Thanh, her husband, on Wednesday as his fishing boat lingered near Taiwan, trying to sidestep the typhoon. In a radio conversation at 5 p.m., he told Hue not to worry after she saw a typhoon warning on television.
"Everything's OK," he said calmly. He explained that he had decided to stay put rather than make a dash for the Vietnamese coast.
Hue called her husband again at 8 p.m. This time, Thanh, 44, sounded nervous and talked fast. They had trouble hearing each other because winds buffeted the boat, and he told her to call back at 8 a.m. the next day.
Hue made that call, but she was unable to contact the boat. Officials confirmed that it sank with 33 crew members aboard. At least eight bodies were recovered. Thanh, a fisherman for the past quarter century, was missing.
Japan's coast guard said high waves off the country's south cost on Wednesday killed one teenager who went swimming in the sea and left another missing. Earlier, Chanchu battered parts of the South China Sea after rising to typhoon strength, killing 37 in the Philippines a week ago. Officials across the region have confirmed a total of 87 deaths.
Chanchu was downgraded to a tropical storm on Thursday as it hit China, but caused landslides and flooding and forced mass evacuations. Landslides and collapsing buildings killed 15 people and left four missing in China's Fujian province, provincial authorities said. Eight more people died in neighboring Guangdong province.
Flooding in southern Taiwan swept two women to their deaths.
T.C. Lee, an official with the Hong Kong Observatory, said Chanchu was the most intense typhoon on record to strike in the South China Sea in May, an early month in the annual typhoon season.
Two Vietnamese fishing boats that survived the storm were expected to return to Danang on Monday with 20 corpses and four surviving sailors, said Ha Van Thong, a coast guard official. He said nearly 60 other survivors were rescued. Chinese boats delivered food and fuel to 14 Vietnamese boats that searched the sea for survivors or bodies near Taiwan.
Hue, the captain's wife, said she had worried for a long time because her husband spent as many as 10 months a year at sea. Local officials said fishermen, beset by rising fuel and other costs, have been forced to sail into deeper waters in order to boost their catch.
Trips have lengthened from 20 to 30 days to as long as two to three months. Thanh had been away this time for 26 days, hunting squid. His wife speculated that Chanchu caught him unaware, despite his experience, because it suddenly changed direction.