35-year-old, US-built vessel lying capsized at a depth of 40 metres. A submersible vehicle launched on Wednesday aimed to tell naval chiefs the extent of the damage done and the viability of key systems as a technical committee considers bringing in the private sector to help refloat and salvage the Sukhothai. 

Thai naval chiefs, as they continue to mount an expanding search and rescue mission seeking to locate 22 personnel still unaccounted for after the 35-year-old naval corvette HTMS Sukhothai capsized and sank on Sunday off Prachuap Khiri Khan, have begun exploring the possibility of salvaging and refloating the vessel with improved weather conditions expected. One more crew member was rescued on Wednesday afternoon.  

Dramatic scenes from Sunday night as the HTMS Sukhothai capsized and later sank in a violent storm off the coast of Prachuap Khiri Khan. (right) Senior naval officers speak with sailors and crew hospitalised at Bang Saphan Hospital.

On Wednesday, the Royal Thai Navy sent down an underwater submersible vehicle to examine the submerged HTMS corvette Sukhothai which sank after it capsized approximately 25 km off the coast of Prachuap Khiri Khan on Sunday.

The naval vessel, built in the United States in 1987, had been carrying approximately 70 crew and 35 other naval and military personnel, including marines, when it left Sattahip Naval base in Chonburi on Saturday heading for Chumphon for a naval ceremony to celebrate the founder or ‘father’ of the service Krom Luang Chumphon Khet-udomsak whose birthday was the 19th December 1880.

Another crew member plucked from raging and fraught seas in the Gulf of Thailand as rescue goes on

On Wednesday afternoon, rescuers plucked another crew member from the fraught seas bringing the total number missing to 22 with 6 confirmed dead

The vessel’s outing was a routine patrol until it encountered what the commander of the Sukhothai afterwards told superiors were the highest waves in a decade in the Gulf of Thailand.

The commander attempted to change course and sought to shield the craft from the storm by heading towards the coast in the Bang Saphan area of Prachuap Khiri Khan.

However, the vessel was overcome by the waves shortly afterwards even when it was assisted by the frigate HTMS Kraburi.

On Wednesday, naval officers loaded the underwater craft into the sea to photograph the submerged vessel.

They weighed the viability of launching a simultaneous salvage operation to refloat the HTMS Sukhothai as well as conducting search and rescue operations involving a flotilla of naval vessels and aircraft that are still combing the Gulf of Thailand looking for survivors.

On Tuesday, one naval officer was pulled alive and unconscious from the seas wearing a life jacket while five bodies were also taken from the sea.

There are currently 22 people from the craft reported as missing with 83 accounted for.

Ship’s commander tells of raging seas he encountered on a routine patrol before he sought shelter off Prachuap Khiri Khan, fiercest seen in a decade

On Tuesday, Admiral Adung Pan-iam told reporters that the vessel ran into difficulties, capsized and sank in a raging sea off Prachuap Khiri Khan before it could reach safer waters.

The fleet commander relayed to the reporters what he had been told by the ship’s commander.

‘The incident happened very fast. The portside listed first and life rafts could not be launched there. The starboard side faced the stormy sea and it was difficult to release life rafts,’ Admiral Adung explained. ‘The captain confirmed that he followed all procedures and did his best to handle the crisis and prevent the vessel from capsizing until that could not be done.’

On Tuesday, the Navy’s Chief of Staff, Admiral Chonlathit Nawanukhro while thanking other navies for their support and offers of help at this difficult time, said that the service still held out hope of finding the crew members who are still missing.

Salvage operation begins with survey of the vessel lying under the seas after it capsized and sunk 

Navy spokesman Admiral Pokkrong Monthatpalin, on Tuesday, also raised the possibility of a salvage operation beginning and said that the navy was, first of all, trying to ascertain whether or not the ship had leaked oil into the sea.

He also said that an underwater examination of the vessel would tell navy chiefs the extent of the damage to the naval corvette including whether critical facilities and operating systems needed were intact.

A technical committee would be set up to plan and execute the flotation of the HTMS Sukhothai.

In the meantime, approximately 15 crew members who are being treated in Bang Saphan Hospital for injuries suffered in the chaos that ensued when the ship capsized and began to take on water.

It has been announced that all those in care are being placed under Royal patronage by order of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn. 

Ship not carrying missiles, torpedoes or ammunition

On Wednesday, the Royal Thai Navy confirmed that the ship was not carrying high-powered weapons such as torpedoes, rockets, missiles or ammunition when she went down.

In the meantime, stories are beginning to emerge of those who perished in the incident such as the Buriram family of 49-year-old Lieutenant Samart Kaew Kluen who told reporters that the officer, who had served with HTMS Sukhothai for 2 years, had been a member of the Royal Thai Navy since leaving school and it was the fulfilment of his childhood dream.

Like other families of those who perished or were injured, the relatives of Lieutenant Samart were asking questions this week as to whether proper safety procedures and protocols were followed.

The incident has shaken the kingdom since news of the tragedy emerged on Sunday night.

One of those rescued from the sea in the last 48 hours is Marine Police Colonel Ram Roshom who was flown back by helicopter.

The police officer was in a debilitated condition after being found in the sea on Tuesday by rescuers battling both strong winds and waves.

These are reported to be quieting down from level 4 to level 2 which should assist the rescue and any attempted salvage mission.

Rescued crewman recalls waves of 4 to 5 metres, said he tried to close a sealed door and to rescue friends who were swept away by the gush of water

Another rescued crew member was Lieutenant Colonel Phatrawut Maram of the HTMS Sukhothai crew who suffered bruises to his face and arms after the vessel began to tilt and chaos ensued with water gushing in.

He recalled HTMS Kraburi tried to help but the waves were simply too strong standing at 4 to 5 metres high, the strongest he had ever encountered in his two years of service in the navy.

Another crew member Lieutenant Colonel Thawatchai Terawat told reporters he suffered a broken finger and felt his arm going numb.

He said he tried to close a sealed door to prevent water from flowing into the naval vessel but that it had already raced his chest and the vessel was about to sink.

He explained he tried to help 4 friends but the wave swept them up causing them to hit the craft.

The vessel officer’s wife told of her relief when she heard that her husband had been rescued from the disaster after her initial shock at hearing the news.

Another officer floated along with the waves until he saw a helicopter flying overhead and was rescued 

Another survivor rescued from the foaming sea was Colonel Natthee Nakmanee.

He said when the ship went down, he and his friends were thrown in all directions and drifted apart.

He insisted that all crew members were wearing life jackets which led to him being eventually rescued at night by HTMS Kraburi.

He recalled he floated in the sea for a long time until he saw a helicopter flying overhead and used the whistle on his life jacket to draw attention and started waving his hands.

This activity instead drew the attention of a sailor aboard the other naval vessel nearby which then rescued him.

He revealed he tried to conserve his energy by going with the waves which nevertheless led to him choking at times such was their height and strength.

Naval Flotilla searching Gulf waters as salvage work began with an underwater survey launched

Four naval vessels are currently in the sea with a minesweeper scheduled to arrive from Samut Prakan on Thursday to join the sweep. They are HTMS Kraburi, Bhumibol, Ang Thong and Naresuan assisted by two search helicopters.

The search has been joined by a flotilla of smaller vessels including police craft and boats from the Department of the Marine, the Department of National Parks and the Department of Fisheries.

On Wednesday, as the HTMS Bang Rachan departed from Samut Prakan, Admiral Choengchai Chomchoengphaet, the naval chief, launched the underwater survey vehicle into the sea above the Sukhothai which is believed to be at a depth of 40 metres.

The naval top brass is hoping that, with the weather improving, they may bring in expertise and resources from the private sector to salvage and refloat the vessel.

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