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10 dead, 16 missing in Japan boat accident

TOKYO (AFP) – At least 10 people were confirmed dead yesterday after a sightseeing boat sank in frigid waters off Japan’s northeast, the coast guard said, with the search continuing for 16 others still missing.

“We have confirmed the deaths of all 10 people” who have so far been retrieved, a coastguard spokesman told AFP.

In a statement, the coast guard added that those found so far had been identified as seven men and three women. The Kazu I sightseeing boat sent a distress signal on Saturday afternoon after it began taking on water off the remote northeastern tip of Japan’s Hokkaido region.

A search-and-rescue operation began immediately, but hopes soon began to fade for the 26 people on board, including two children and two crew, because of the cold temperatures in the region.

The boat had set out on Saturday morning on a sightseeing cruise of the sort that is popular in the Shiretoko Peninsula, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site for its pristine natural environment and diverse wildlife.

A rescuer being lifted in a search operation for missing passengers and crew members of a sunken tour boat off Shiretoko Peninsula, northern Japan of Hokkaido. PHOTO: AP

The tour went ahead despite high winds and waves that reportedly prompted even some local fishing boats to return to shore to avoid the worsening conditions.

“It was clear that the conditions at sea would worsen, so I told them not to go,” a local tour boat operator told NHK. “But they did (went) anyway. I told the captain not to.”

The boat issued a distress call at around 1.15pm on Saturday, with coast guard helicopters and vessels arriving in the area several hours later.

By nightfall though, as the air temperature dropped to around zero degrees Celsius, there was no sign of either the boat or those aboard, though the search continued overnight with thermal equipment.

Local police and Japan’s Self Defense Forces have joined the rescue operation, and the first four people from the boat were located early yesterday, with six more being retrieved in the following hours.

Some were found in the water, while others were spotted along the rugged shoreline, where images from national broadcaster NHK showed rescue workers combing the coast as waves crashed into the shore.