TOKYO — The Japanese Coast Guard said on Sunday that rescue helicopters had found four of 26 people from a tour boat missing in freezing waters in northern Japan since the day before, but their conditions are unknown.
The four people were found near the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula, but the Coast Guard said it could not confirm whether they were rescued alive. Public broadcaster NHK said they were unconscious.
Footage on NHK showed one of the rescued people arriving by helicopter and being transferred to an ambulance on a stretcher, while rescuers held up blue plastic shields for privacy.
The boat carrying 24 passengers and two crew went missing after sending out a distress call on Saturday saying it had taken on water and was beginning to sink.
Sunday’s rescue came after nearly 19 hours of intense search involving six patrol boats, several planes and divers. The Coast Guard said the search continued overnight.
The 19-tonne Kazu 1 made an emergency call in the early afternoon, saying the ship’s bow had been flooded and it was beginning to sink and heel over as it moved offshore off the west coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula, near the northern island of Hokkaido, the coast guard said.
The tour boat has since lost contact, according to the Coast Guard. He said the boat was carrying 24 passengers, including two children, and two crew members.
Average April sea temperatures in Shiretoko National Park are just above freezing.
An official with the ship’s operator, Shiretoko Pleasure Cruise, said he could not comment because he had to take calls from worried families of passengers.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was attending a two-day summit in Kumamoto in southern Japan, canceled his schedule for the second day and returned to Tokyo. He told reporters in the early hours of Sunday that he had asked officials “to do whatever they can for the rescue.”
The cause of the crash is still under investigation, but experts suspect the boat ran aground and was damaged.
High waves and strong winds were seen in the area around midday, according to a local fishing cooperative. Japanese media reported that the fishing boats had returned to port before noon due to bad weather.
NHK said there was a warning for high waves up to 9ft.
A tour boat crew belonging to another operator told NHK they warned of rough seas when they spotted the crew of Kazu 1 and told them not to go. He also said the same boat ran aground last year and suffered a crack in the bow.
Kyodo News via AP
Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor of marine science at Tokai University, said the boat likely ran aground after being buffeted by high waves and damaged, flooded and likely sunk. A tour boat of this size does not usually carry a lifeboat, and passengers might not be able to escape from a rapidly sinking ship with its windows likely closed to protect them from high winds.
In an interview with TBS elevision, Yamada said there was also a slight possibility that the boat was hit by a whale.
The cold temperature and strong wind could cause hypothermia and put passengers in serious survival conditions, according to Jun Abe, vice president of the Society of Water Rescue and Survival Research. “It’s a very serious condition, especially when they’re wet,” Abe told TBS.
According to the operator’s website, the tour lasts around three hours and offers panoramic views of the peninsula’s west coast and includes potential sightings of animals such as whales, dolphins and brown bears. The national park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is famous as the southernmost area to see drifting sea ice.