Before Fatal Boat Crash in Budapest, Safety Warnings Went Unheeded

BUDAPEST — The warnings came before a ship called the Mermaid set out on May 29 in driving rain for a nighttime tour of Budapest. Before the much larger Viking Sigyn struck the Mermaid, capsizing and sinking it in seconds. Before 28 people died in Hungary’s worst boating accident in at least six decades.

Traffic on the Danube had soared to dangerous levels, and in particular, there were far too many tourist ships. Ship captains and official reports tried to sound alarms, but the government refused to impose new limits.

“City officials were warned about the dangers of too much traffic,” said Gabor Demszky, the mayor of Budapest from 1990 to 2010. “But they failed to act. It is a very profitable business.”

The accident has raised concerns that, at the municipal and national levels, where tourism has become a major source of revenue for Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government and its allies, political calculations and the drive for profit outweighed safety concerns.

Either the national government, whose tourism agency grants permits to sightseeing vessels, or the city, which controls Budapest’s docks, could limit the number of ships and boats operating there. Both declined to comment.

On Tuesday, a floating crane slowly lifted the Mermaid to the surface, and divers recovered four bodies from the wreck. The vessel carried 33 tourists from South Korea and two crew members; only seven of those aboard survived, and several of the victims have still not been found.

The 64-year-old Ukrainian captain of the Viking Sigyn, identified only as Yuriy C., has been arrested on suspicion of negligence. Viking Cruises confirmed reports that he was part of the crew of another ship, the Viking Idun, that was involved in a collision in the Netherlands in April, raising questions about how he had been allowed to take the helm of one of the newest and largest vessels in the company’s fleet.

But beyond the role of human error, people have long pointed to the risks of heavy river traffic through Budapest, which has expanded fast, propelled by the explosion in tourism. City officials have been warned, in at least two reports, that the number of vessels navigating this stretch of the Danube and the lack of communication between international and local ships could pose a danger, especially at night.

A 2013 development study commissioned by the city warned that the increase in hotel boats “has led to numerous points of tension,” including overcrowding on the waterway. This year, a transportation development study prepared by the Budapest Transportation Authority found that more “cooperation was needed between professional and tourism-related vessels on the Budapest” stretch of the Danube.

The newest cruise ships, known as longships, are essentially floating hotels, stretching up to 500 feet long and able to accommodate nearly 1,000 guests.

Hotel ships like the 442-foot Viking Sigyn, must compete for space with local sightseeing vessels like the Mermaid, an 89-foot, Soviet-era vessel, as well as with industrial transport barges, permanently docked restaurants and other floating structures used for entertainment. Budapest residents say the increased volume is striking, as is the rise in air pollution from the ships.

The Danube stretches some 1,800 miles from Germany to the Black Sea and flows through 10 countries, making it hard to get a complete picture of river traffic and safety.

But a study cofinanced by the European Commission released in April 2018 found that the amount of traffic on the Danube, measured at the German-Austrian border, increased by 89 percent from 2002 to 2017. It also reported that the number of cruise vessels plying the river more than doubled from 2004 to 2017, to 346 ships with 50,616 beds.

Capt. Branislav Vajda, the president of the Association of Professional Carriers of Serbia, said that crowding on the Danube in and around Belgrade, that country’s capital, was so severe, “it is only a matter of time before we have a tragedy of our own to announce.”

As King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy found when he visited Budapest in 1937 and his hosts lit up the majestic Chain Bridge for the first time, the city’s imperial grandeur is at its most magical at night. And the best vantage point for seeing the sights, from Buda Castle to the monumental Parliament building, is the river.

“The government and the oligarchs around the government officials, are always looking for new resources and, in this business, they found one,” said Mr. Demszky, the former mayor.

He said that the current mayor, Istvan Tarlos, an ally of Mr. Orban, was supported by the national government, “so he is not really free to act.” Mr. Tarlos declined to respond to a request for an interview.

In the days after the accident, according to people familiar with the tourism industry, scores of boats seemed to disappear as the authorities cracked down on those operating without the proper permits. But many said they believed the moves were only temporary.

Mr. Orban and his Fidesz party have near complete control over the state and have been exerting increasing influence over the private economy, including tourism, one of the most profitable sectors. Mr. Orban’s daughter, Rahel Orban, who has a master’s degree in hospitality management from the private École Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland, is an unpaid adviser to the Hungarian Tourism Agency.

In 2016, Mr. Orban earmarked more than $3 billion in public funds for tourism ventures across Hungary up to 2030, including a $1 billion resort complex near Lake Balaton. Ms. Orban’s husband, Istvan Tiborcz, has come under criticism for his stake in the development. A Reuters investigation published in 2018 found that Mr. Tiborcz “stands to collect almost half of any profits from a venture which acquired the resort’s biggest hotel.”

The Hungarian Tourism Agency, which manages all tourism-related projects, including those funded by the European Union, is overseen by the Prime Minister’s Office and co-owns the slips for international ships along the Budapest stretch of the Danube.

“The authorities should examine whether business considerations unduly overruled expert opinions that the increased hotel boat traffic on the Danube River in Budapest may cause serious accidents,” said Miklos Ligeti, legal director for the public information advocacy group Transparency International in Hungary. “If this can be established, there is a serious indication of gross negligence which should be prosecuted.”

Officials from Viking Cruises declined to answer questions about overcrowding on the river, but industry officials noted that river cruise ships remain among the safest modes of travel, with a record better even than the airline industry.

Zsolt Varga, head of the Hungarian Federation of Passenger Fleet Operators, said he did not believe that the recent tragedy was the result of overcrowding.

“Those two boats could have been the only boats on the Danube at that time and this still could have happened,” he said.

Still, he acknowledged that there was concern about coordination between local boats and the larger cruise ships. That is why, he said, a new rule was instituted last year requiring ships doing a sightseeing loop in Budapest to travel past the Arpad Bridge in the north and Rakoczi Bridge in the south before making turns.

David Szekeres, a 47-year-old boat captain who trains skippers with his Gabriella Sailing company, said navigating around Budapest presented specific challenges, including jetties unmarked on maps and navigation markers in the wrong places. Within the city, the Danube rises and falls as much as eight meters — more than in other cities, where dams and levees regulate the flow. When the river is running high and fast, it carries all sorts of debris, and leaves little room for error passing under bridges.

Not all those at the helm are up to the task, Mr. Szekeres said, in part because the licensing process has been weakened.

For instance, he said that the test for a pilot license for boats under 20 feet changed in 2013, when a former government official took over a company that trained pilots for the written part of the exam.

“You don’t have to learn anything about sailing,” he said. “You just have to learn the exact answers to pass the test.”

It was near the Margaret Bridge that the accident took place.

As the Viking ship bore down on the Mermaid from behind, investigators said, there was no radio communication between them. No warning horn was sounded.

The inquiry has been hampered by treacherous currents and poor underwater visibility. The Viking ship left Budapest for Passau, Germany, less than two days after the fatal collision.

Gyorgy Magyar, a Hungarian lawyer representing the family of the Hungarian crewman aboard the Mermaid, said it was wrong for the authorities to allow the Viking to depart from Budapest so soon after the accident.

“That vessel was involved in an accident and it is evidence that shouldn’t be released until the professional and all-encompassing investigation has concluded,” he said. Letting it leave means “the evidence has been tampered with,” he added.

Some clues as to the cause of the crash might be revealed now that the Mermaid has been recovered from the riverbed. But whatever investigators find, it will not change what people who know the Danube have long said is the basic problem.

“For me, it is overcrowded,” Mr. Szekeres said.

“And now, you have these really big cruise ships doing sightseeing tours, and they are just too big,” he added. “They should not be doing this. Especially at night.”

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