Recovery divers have pulled 41 bodies from the sea off the Thai holiday island of Phuket, officials said on Saturday, 48 hours after a boat capsized in rough waters killing dozens of Chinese passengers.
Many of the dead were found drifting in the sea, still wearing life jackets, several kilometres (miles) from where the Phoenix went down after being hit by five-metre (15-foot) high waves in a storm on Thursday evening.
It is one of the worst boat disasters in the recent history of Thailand, a nation with a poor health and safety track record despite being heavily dependent on tourism.
The death toll rose to 41 on Saturday, with 15 still missing, according to the Phuket province public relations department.
Seventeen Chinese divers joined the operation on Saturday to recover bodies as conflicting figures emerged about the number of dead.
Phuket Governor Norraphat Plodthong had earlier said that five bodies were found on Saturday, in addition to 37 bodies recovered on Friday.
The triple decked Phoenix was carrying 105 passengers, mostly Chinese tourists, when it sank on the way back from a popular snorkelling spot.
The Phuket provincial government has said the island’s morgue is full, with Chinese authorities requesting 40 further refrigeration units.
Some 48 people — passengers and crew — were rescued on Thursday, while a Chinese woman was plucked from the churning waters Friday and rushed to hospital in Phuket after spending the night in the water.
Divers on Friday reported seeing “over 10 bodies” floating inside the hull of the boat, which is submerged 40 metres below the surface of the Andaman Sea.
Thai navy Rear Admiral Charoenphon Khumrasee has said hopes are now dwindling of finding more people alive.
“Of course we’ll continue searching but the chances of survival are low. We will wait for the bodies to float to the top on their own,” he said Saturday.
China’s ambassador to Thailand, who travelled to Phuket, said Beijing had sent two search and rescue teams to help the Thai authorities.
“We aim to find the missing as soon as possible, as well as provide assistance to the injured, and family members of those involved, as well as help them make preparations for the next step,” he said.
The Phoenix was among several boats that appeared to have ignored a warning in place since Wednesday against taking passengers on day-trips to the islands that dot the seas off the tourist magnet of Phuket.
It sank in rough weather a few kilometres off the coast of Koh He, an islet known for its coral formations.
Several other vessels hit trouble late Thursday, but all of their passengers were rescued.
Thailand is already in the global spotlight for a dramatic rescue mission in the north of the country, after 12 boys and their football coach were trapped in a cave complex.
Last year 9.8 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, with five million more arriving between January and May this year.