Sabah boat tragedy: Trip to paradise turns into nightmare at sea

Sabah boat tragedy: Trip to paradise turns into nightmare at sea
Finding comfort: Family members of victims of the catamaran that sank on its way to Pulau Mengalum console each other.
PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

KOTA KINABALU - A trip to a tropical island in the South China Sea seemed an idyllic way to usher in the lunar new year for Fan Li Xia.

That turned into a nightmare for the 40-year-old from China when the boat she and a group of friends were in suddenly started listing and sank as they were heading to Pulau Mengalum.

It is a 30-hour nightmare - one that took them from the searing heat of the day to the windy, icy cold of the South China Sea nights - that she will take a long time to get over.

Fan, who is now being treated for severe sunburn, spoke of how she and the other passengers were told to gather in a group while in the water and how they tied themselves to each other using the rope on their life jackets.

As they remained adrift in the sea, Fan said the group tried to keep their spirits up by giving each other encouragement and talked about what they would do after their ordeal was over.

"However, after about a day, I started to lose hope of ever being rescued. I thought we were all going to die in the sea," she said.

She said one of their friends, a man, became unconscious while they were adrift in the water.

"We tried holding on to him at first. Then, we too got tired so we had to let him go. There seemed to be no hope for us to be rescued," she recalled.

Survivors of the boat tragedy are rushed to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu for treatment.
Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

Just when she thought all was lost and they were doomed, several fishing boats approached them and Fan felt relief.

The fishermen quickly pulled the survivors on board their vessel and gave them water.

Fan said many of them were so severely sunburned that their skin peeled off.

"There was a lot of blood in the fishing boat after we were rescued," she said.

Another survivor said she was so desperate that she had to quench her thirst by drinking her urine.

"All I knew was that I had to survive through any means," said the woman who declined to be identified.

She said they saw some boats on the horizon on Saturday afternoon and tried shouting and waving to them.

They tried to swim to the boats but the currents were against them.

"We were just too slow and the boats disappeared from view," she said. Nightfall was initially a relief from the heat but it soon became freezing cold with the strong winds.

Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

"We were shivering in the water," she said, adding that she and the other survivors had to ward off fish that tried to bite them during the night.

For Fan, though, the nightmare has ended and even the pain from the sunburn cannot overcome her elation at being rescued.

While some of the survivors were placed in wards, those who were in a more serious condition were kept in individual rooms.

The two were among 27 China nationals who had boarded the catamaran at about 9am at the Kampung Tanjung Aru jetty for the two-hour ride to Pulau Mengalum, some 56km away.

"Seven of us joined another group of 21 people to go to Mengalum. I was really looking forward to spending time on the island," Fan said.

About an hour into the journey, she said, the catamaran began listing as it rapidly took in water.

"The boat started tilting backwards and water starting filling in fast ... Our guide and boatman told us to jump into the sea," she said at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital yesterday.

Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

A total of 20 China nationals were rescued from the sea by fishermen on Sunday, as were the catamaran skipper and a crewman.

They were brought back to Kota Kinabalu early yesterday morning along with the bodies of three other China tourists who died in the tragedy.

Officials at the hospital said that many of the survivors were still traumatised and disoriented from their ordeal.

Read also: Sabah boat tragedy: CNY holiday outing turns tragic

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