Looking for Answers Despite Zero-visibility


It ought to go without saying that our thoughts are with the survivors, victims and families of the Hableány (Mermaid) disaster, but I think it is important we do so in any case.  

The Danube is such an ever present part of our everyday lives in Budapest, that we have become inured to its equally ever present threat. The sinking of the tourist ship is a salutary reminder of the dangers inherent around water; given the wrong circumstances, a person can drown in just a few centimeters, after all. Scores die every year at Balaton, caught out by the sudden storms that blow up over the lake.

Growing up, my bothers, sister and I were taught to swim early, the result of a tragedy that befell my father when he was a child; evacuated from the U.K.’s second city, Birmingham, during World War II, he watched helpless as a school friend was swept away and over a weir to his death in the River Severn in Worcester. My Dad was so determined never to see that again that he actually qualified as a life guard.  

But even the strongest swimmer will struggle if thrown into the Danube unexpectedly, fully clothed and at night, during a storm, when the river is in spate due to recent rainfall. Little wonder that only seven out of 35 persons on board the Hableány on the night of May 29 made it to safety, and many of those were suffering from hypothermia. At the time of writing, there are 14 confirmed dead, and 14 missing, presumed dead.  

The recovery operation has been hampered by those recent rains, which mean the currents are particularly strong (and the eddies around the bridge piers and piles are always powerful), stirring up the riverbed around the wreck, nine meters deep, to create close to zero-visibility. The high river level has also slowed the progress of a giant crane capable of lifting the wreck, as it could not pass under some of the bridges.

The river is such an essential element of Budapest; it draws thousands of tourists, but is also a working river. Spend any time watching from the banks, and it won’t be long before you see craft of all sizes passing by. The BBC’s veteran Hungary reporter, Nick Thorpe, pointed out that river traffic has increased dramatically in recent years as tourism has boomed. He spoke to a crew member of a large cruise ship with 27 years of experience on the Danube, who described this as an accident he and others have long worried about.  

“In his view, the practice of the river cruisers, which sail up and down the river between the five main bridges as an after-dinner excursion for their passengers, should be stopped,” Thorpe writes on the BBC website.

The danger in the discrepancy in size is laid bare by the fact that the police say the Hableány sank within seven seconds of the collision with the much larger cruise ship Viking Sigyn. There were no casualties on the bigger vessel. And yet the Danube through Budapest has a good safety record. This is said to have been the worst disaster in decades; I certainly don’t recall anything similar in the 20 years I have lived here.

While South Korea mourns (the fatal accident a painful reminder of the Sewol disaster when a ferry sank in 2014, killing 304, mostly schoolchildren), the local authorities must ascertain the cause and consider whether ships of such widely different sizes should be kept apart. Until that happens, enjoy the river, and do keep safe.

Robin Marshall


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