Canadian Tourist Recounts Aftermath of Boat Collision on the Danube

May 31, 2019 Updated: May 31, 2019

HALIFAX—A Canadian tourist who was on the Danube River in Budapest when two boats tragically collided Wednesday says the experience was “surreal” and “sobering.”

Ken Hoffer, a retired navy captain, was nearing the end of a 10-day cruise along the river that cuts through central and eastern Europe when he encountered an “astounding” scene through the heavy rain.

The 63-year-old Halifax resident said he was aboard the 122-metre Avalon Illumination and was out for an hour-long cruise of the brightly lit Hungarian capital when the cruise director said there had been an emergency on the river and people were in the water.

A rescue boat is seen at the site of a ship accident, which killed several people, near Margaret Bridge on the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary, May 31, 2019. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
A rescue boat is seen at the site of a ship accident, which killed several people, near Margaret Bridge on the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary, May 31, 2019. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

“I used to actually train (navy) ships on how to do man overboard and how crews are supposed to respond, so that training kind of kicked in, and I stayed topside,” Hoffer said in a phone interview Friday on his last day in the city.

He said his tour ship was about two bridges downstream from where the collision occurred, and he and several others were “keeping an eye out for possible individuals in the water.”

It wasn’t long before he spotted something about 18 metres away from the vessel.

“The first chap was inside a life-ring. He had it over his torso and he was looking up at me,” said Hoffer, adding that the river’s current was swift.

“So he was being swept away,” he said.

A special South Korean rescue team is seen on a boat at the site of a ship accident, which killed several people, near Margaret Bridge on the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary, May 31, 2019. (Antonio Bronic/Reuters)
A special South Korean rescue team is seen on a boat at the site of a ship accident, which killed several people, near Margaret Bridge on the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary, May 31, 2019. (Antonio Bronic/Reuters)

Hoffer, who was standing on the upper deck near the wheelhouse, said he immediately shouted, “Man overboard, man overboard,” and alerted the crew, who called in a police boat.

“The captain actually got the police boat to respond very quickly, and I’d like to think that they did recover him alive,” Hoffer said.

He said it was only seconds later that he and the others saw a second man, who was also in a life-ring and was waving his arm. Then at least three bodies passed by about six metres off the starboard beam of the ship, face down in the water.

Hoffer said a debris field was also carried by the current.

“We saw backpacks going through the water, empty safety rings, upper deck chairs, lots of garbage and then oil. All of this stuff was being swept down from the crash site,” he said.

However, Hoffer said it wasn’t until Thursday morning that he and other passengers learned the extent of the tragedy, with seven people confirmed dead, seven rescued and 21 missing.

“We were all astounded by the accident and just couldn’t believe that so many people lost their lives,” he said.

A rescue team is seen at the site of a ship accident, which killed several people, near Margaret Bridge on the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary, May 31, 2019. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
A rescue team is seen at the site of a ship accident, which killed several people, near Margaret Bridge on the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary, May 31, 2019. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Hungarian police have launched a criminal investigation and said Friday they had detained the Ukrainian captain of a Viking cruise ship. The vessel collided with a sightseeing boat packed with South Korean tourists, causing it to sink quickly.

The South Korean group on a package tour of Europe included 30 tourists, two guides and a photographer. Two Hungarian crew members are among the 21 missing.

Hoffer said he and his wife stayed over an extra day Friday to take in more of the sights of Budapest, including a castle higher up in the city. Despite the warm sunny day, he said he was still processing what happened on the river and could see physical reminders of the tragedy.

“When we looked down we could see the salvage crane in position, ready to recover the boat,” he said.

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