Hungary Must Learn From Tragedy, or pay a Higher Cost Later

History

It was an eerie, somewhat sinister feeling standing near parliament towards sunset on the Tuesday evening before publication of this issue. For on the surface of the Danube, normally the aquatic equivalent of a dodgem car business doing well, there were no boats, or more accurately, no moving boats.

It was, of course, in the aftermath of the tragedy six days previously, when a multi-deck cruise ship collided with the Hableány (Mermaid) near Margaret Bridge, sinking the far smaller pleasure boat in seconds. The Hableány was carrying 33 Korean tourists and two crew.

At the time of writing, with 14 victims’ bodies found and only seven passengers rescued on the night of the accident, hopes for any further survivors are non-existent.

One assumes the absence of active vessels on Tuesday was a police move, designed to assist recovery of the submerged wreck of the Hableány. Certainly, to the north of parliament, a floating crane was anchored, presumably in preparation for a lifting operation.

About time too, say critics of how the authorities have managed the emergency. Starting with the first report to the police – which came ten minutes after the sinking not from anyone in authority, but from a passenger on another boat – to the fact that the wreck, likely still holding corpses of those on board, remains on the Danube bed a week after the collision.

Nor does it reflect well on official disaster bodies that the first rescue boat on the scene was that of an NGO volunteer group going by the cumbersome title (on their English website page) of “Water Rescue Services of Hungary and Volunteer Firefighter Services”. Cumbersome in name, but fast in action, it would seem.

Politician’s Choice

In view of this, the statement by Interior Minister Sándor Pinter that the rescue service performance was “exemplary” would seem perhaps, a politician’s choice of words.

Viking, the U.K.-based luxury cruise ship company and owner of the Sigyn – the other ship involved in the collision, does not come out of the affair with colors flying either.

Granted, Torstein Hagen, Viking’s chairman, issued a statement expressing his condolences to the families of victims, and promising to “cooperate fully” with the ongoing investigations – but this was six days after the fatal collision.

A full week on, the Viking webpages make no mention of the chairman’s letter or the sinking, although the Sigyn (“Faithfulness” in old Norse) remains advertised for 11-day trips on the Bucharest to Budapest line at GBP 2,095 (USD 2,660) a head.

As someone who, in a former life in the rail industry, had some experience with disasters in the focus of public attention, your correspondent knows that one result is that every John and Mary has opinions as to what should be done, even if, usually, neither has any specialist knowledge of how, for example, to examine a boat on the bed of a river in full flood.

But Hungary has set itself up as a superlative, and safe, tourist destination.

Those tourists also need reliable regulatory bodies, infrastructure and services to prevent things going wrong, and with the ability to right them quickly when they do. That takes investment, human resources and money, which will produce no direct returns.

That investment might include tighter – and enforced - regulations on riverboat traffic. This would cause losses to some: but another Hableány tragedy would be far more costly to all.

The Bottom Line is a monthly column written by Kester Eddy, a long-standing and well respected Budapest-based business and economic journalist, who has written for the Financial Times and many regional publications. The opinions expressed in the column are not necessarily those of the Budapest Business Journal. To comment on this column, or on anything else in the BBJ, email the editor at robin.marshall@bbj.hu

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