KOTA KINABALU - What was supposed to be a leisure boat trip for a group of 28 Chinese tourists to an island west of Kota Kinabalu turned into a nightmare when their catamaran sank in the South China Sea on the first day of the Chinese New Year.
Twenty Chinese tourists and two Malaysian crew members were rescued from the sea near Pulau Tiga off Labuan.
Three of the tourists, including a woman, have died.
The sea was believed to be choppy with waves reaching up to three to four metres high when the incident happened.
The catamaran had left the Tanjung Aru jetty at about 9am on Saturday.
The group, which included three crewmen, was supposed to arrive at Pulau Mengalum, about 56km west of Kota Kinabalu two hours later.
The island is known for its beautiful beaches and is also a magnet for divers.
Pulau Tiga is about 53km away from Pulau Mengalum, and 50km from Tanjung Aru jetty.
The boat was reported missing at about 9.50pm by its owners who said that it had not reached the island. It is not known why the report was lodged late.
Despite the strong waves and bad weather, a massive search and rescue operation covering an area of 400 nautical square miles, was launched by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) with help from the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF), Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) and the police.
Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Ramli Din said the vessel skipper Sharizal Shalian, 25, and a crewman Amran Abdul, 38, were rescued earlier.
All 22 victims, he said, were pulled from the sea between Pulau Tiga and the Samarang offshore petroleum rig.
He said the search and rescue for the remaining six people is being intensified with the area expanded from 400 to 1,400 nautical miles.
He said the police believed the catamaran sank at about 10am on Saturday after encountering rough seas on the way to the island.
"We will be investigating if there is any element of negligence involved in this incident," he added.
Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim said Sharizal and Amran were spotted by a RMAF aircraft.
He said that a number of others were rescued by tugboats and fishermen.
Some of the victims were rescued near the Samarang offshore petroleum platform between 90km and 130km from where they were last seen, he said.
Shahidan said it was easy to spot the victims who were wearing life-jackets as they had tied themselves in groups.
"If they had been drifting on their own, it would have made the search and rescue even more difficult and time consuming," he told a press conference in Sandakan.
MMEA director-general Laksamana Madya Datuk Ahmad Fuzi Kahar, who was with Shahidan, said the investigations would also look into whether the catamaran was overloaded.
The rescued tourists were taken to Labuan and were being sent to Kota Kinabalu at press time.
Sabah and Labuan MMEA deputy director Rahim Ramli said bad weather had hampered the search.
"There were strong winds and choppy waters," he added.
RMN chief Laksamana Tan Sri Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin, who confirmed the navy's participation in the rescue effort, had tweeted his concern over the incident.
"So sad as it happened on CNY," he tweeted.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak tweeted that he was monitoring the developments.
Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese president Xi Jinping as saying that he had "demanded an all-out rescue effort" by Malaysia.
Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman directed the search and rescue mission to utilise spotter planes to improve the chances of finding the victims.
"The authorities are doing their best to find them.
"I know this a difficult time for the families.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with them," he added.
Musa also said boat operators should exercise greater caution when taking people to sea, especially when the weather conditions are rough.
China's Consul-General in Sabah Chen Peijie said she hoped that all those missing would be found safe.
"Yesterday (Saturday) was the first day of Chinese Lunar New Year and it should have been a happy day. Unfortunately, such a bad thing happened," she said after attending a briefing on the SAR mission at the MMEA Sabah and Labuan headquarters here.
In a statement, China's Foreign Ministry said that its consulate-general in Kota Kinabalu had contacted Malaysian authorities and urged the Malaysian Government to do all it could to rescue the tourists.
The China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) activated emergency measures after the boat carrying mainly Chinese tourists was reported missing.
According to China's official news agency Xinhua, an emergency team led by a deputy chief of the administration has been set up to deal with the incident, according to a CNTA statement.
The administration was in the midst of checking the information of the tourists, and the staff in its Singapore office are preparing to search the area where the boat went missing, the statement said.
Meanwhile, rain and winds of up to 30kph have been forecast for the seas off Kota Kinabalu to Pulau Mengalum.
According to the Malaysian Meteorological Department, sea conditions in the area will see daily rainfall with waves of up to 1.5m high from today to Saturday.