Questions grow over communication system used by Hokkaido tour operator

The cellphone belonging to the captain of a tour boat that sank off Hokkaido was inaccessible for most of the ship’s fateful last voyage, sources familiar with the matter said, pointing to an apparent failure by the operator to properly manage its communication system.

Twelve people remained missing on Sunday after the 19-tonne Kazu I disappeared in rough waters while visiting the scenic Shiretoko Peninsula on April 23.

The discovery exposed a series of flaws in operator Shiretoko Yuransen’s communications system, including a broken radio antenna at his desk on the day of the crash. It was also discovered that an employee did not know the number of the satellite cell phone that was allegedly kept on the boat, the sources said.

Three days before the accident, Noriyuki Toyoda, the 54-year-old captain of the Kazu I, obtained permission from a regulator to use his cell phone rather than the satellite cell phone on the boat as a means of communication, according to the transportation department.

The regulator approved the change because Toyoda said the cellphone would be accessible at sea, the ministry said.

A call requesting help from the Japanese Coast Guard was made using a passenger’s mobile phone, coast guard sources said. A distress call from the Kazu I’s radio was also picked up by another boat operator.

Officers from a vessel belonging to the Hokkaido Prefectural Police reportedly used an underwater camera to search the waters near Kazu I’s resting place off Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula on Sunday. | KYODO

The boat had 26 people on board in total. So far, the bodies of 14 people have been recovered.

The boat was found Friday on a seabed near the peninsula at a depth of around 115 to 120 meters, where visibility is only 1 to 2 meters.

On Sunday, the Coast Guard, Maritime Self-Defense Force and Hokkaido Prefectural Police continued to search the waters near the Kazu I’s resting place using underwater cameras. Searches for missing persons using ships and aircraft were also continuing.

Divers from the Coastguard Rescue Task Force can only reach a depth of 60 meters, so specially trained divers from the private sector can be brought in to help with the operation.

According to the coastguard, the boat was found on the seabed about 1 kilometer west-northwest of a waterfall on the peninsula, at the same place where the distress call was made .

Authorities are contacting Russia as they may need to search areas around Kunashiri, one of the Russian-held islands at the center of the territorial dispute between the two countries.

Hiroyasu Ito, director of the Yokohama-based Maritime Disaster Prevention Center, said the missing people may have drifted to the disputed islands due to complicated ocean currents in the area.

“I think (the coastguard) wants to search the area right now,” Ito said, expressing hope they will be able to do so soon.

A Japanese Coast Guard vessel is searching for people still missing after a tour boat sank in the waters off Hokkaido's Shiretoko Peninsula on Saturday.  |  KYODO
A Japanese Coast Guard vessel is searching for people still missing after a tour boat sank in the waters off Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula on Saturday. | KYODO

The Coastguard is investigating the incident, with the operator likely to face charges of professional negligence resulting in death.

Shiretoko Yuransen chairman Seiichi Katsurada publicly apologized on Wednesday, admitting his decision to give the go-ahead for the ship’s departure despite the risk of bad weather was inappropriate.

A relative of Naoki Kato, 35, and Kato’s three-year-old daughter Nanako, who both died in the sinking, said in a statement on Sunday that he was “in a state of grief that words cannot can express”. The relative is a brother of Kato’s wife, who is still missing.

“I very much hope that all the victims will be found as soon as possible,” he said through a lawyer.

On Saturday, people laid flowers at a gymnasium in the city of Shari, Hokkaido, where the bodies of the victims had been placed. Among the visitors was Katsunori Nojiri, 54, head of a local tourism association.

“My heart aches when I think of the feelings of the bereaved. I hope the missing will be found as soon as possible,” he said.

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