Vietnam police blame human error in boat sinking

Vietnamese police said Sunday that human error was to blame for the sinking of a tour boat in Ha Long Bay that killed 12 sleeping passengers. The vessel's captain and a crew member have been arrested.

A valve that allows water to come into the boat to cool the engine was left open while the vessel was anchored for the night, Quang Ninh provincial police spokesman Le Thanh Binh said. The engine was turned off, preventing a pump from running to push the water out, he said.

Eleven foreign tourists from nine countries were among those who drowned when the boat went down in the scenic bay last week.

"The initial police investigation showed that the man in charge of the boat engine forgot to close the valve that allowed water in to cool the engine before he, the captain and other crew went to bed," Binh told The Associated Press by telephone. "When they found out about that, it was too late."

However, Pham Xuan Viet, a veteran captain who runs a similar boat in Ha Long Bay, said the cause may be more complicated because leaving the cooling valve open should not by itself fill a boat with water and sink it.

The tour boat was inundated with gushing water when it went down about 5 a.m. Thursday, trapping passengers in their overnight cabins. All of the Vietnamese crew survived, along with nine foreign tourists. But 11 vacationers from the U.S., Britain, Australia, Japan, Russia, France, Sweden and Switzerland drowned along with their Vietnamese tour guide.

It was Vietnam's deadliest tour boat accident since the country opened up to foreign visitors 25 years ago.

Boat captain Nguyen Van Minh, 22, and Do Van Thang, 27, who was in charge of the engine, were arrested Saturday, Binh said. The two, along with three other crew members, had been detained earlier for questioning.

State-controlled Thanh Nien newspaper quoted an anonymous source as saying Truong Hai Co., which owned the "Dream Voyage," was previously named Bien Mo Co. The company owned a boat that sank in Ha Long Bay in September 2009, killing three foreigners and two Vietnamese during heavy rains and high winds. It changed its name four months ago, the paper said.

Police said the boat from Thursday's incident has been towed to a port, where it will be raised on a beam for a full police examination. However, an initial inspection found no holes or breakage in the hull.

"This is an accident causing very serious consequences," Binh said. "Those responsible will be dealt with seriously in accordance with the law."

The bodies of 10 of the foreign victims have been released to their families and embassies, hospital officials said. The body of one of the two American female victims was expected to be handed over later Sunday, and the body of the Vietnamese tour guide has also been released to his family.

About 2.5 million people, half of them foreigners, cruise Ha Long Bay each year to experience the dramatic 1,600 jagged limestone formations that jut out of the sea, forming tiny islands in the Gulf of Tonkin near the Chinese border.

Day cruises are offered, but many tourists opt to sleep on traditional wooden boats equipped with cabins, ranging from budget to luxury accommodation.