It’s June 10, 2019, and rescue workers are hard at work in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. There are barges and a crane set up on the Danube, and the people there are putting in all their effort to retrieve a sunken vessel known as the Hableány. But after the team have finally plucked the boat from the river, they make a truly stomach-churning find.
The Hableány herself was a relatively old vessel, having initially been constructed back in 1949 in the Soviet Union. In 2003, however, a company called Panorama Deck bought the 89-foot-long craft. And from that point on, she found a use in drifting along the Danube river.
The Danube itself, meanwhile, is one of the lengthiest rivers in Europe – second only to the Volga. Starting in Germany and ultimately flowing into the Black Sea, the body of water snakes through a total of ten countries – meaning, in fact, it passes through a greater number of nations than any other river on the planet.
And since ancient times, numerous human settlements have sprung up at various points along the Danube. For instance, there’s evidence of the nearly 8,000-year-old Vinča culture having been born there. There are also signs of the roughly 5,000-year-old Vučedol culture – famous for its work with ceramics – having thrived along the river’s banks.
Owing to the Danube’s sheer length, moreover, the famous body of water travels through numerous major European locations. These include urban centers such as Ulm in Germany and Vukovar in Croatia as well as a quartet of capital cities: Vienna in Austria, Bratislava in Slovakia, Belgrade in Serbia and Budapest in Hungary.
And many consider Budapest to be one of the more charming cities of Europe. Condé Nast Traveler has even listed the capital as the second-best metropolis on Earth – behind only Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende. A specific area close to the city’s section of the Danube is also home to numerous famous attractions, including the Buda Castle, the Hungarian Parliament and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
Then there are a number of points along the whole course of the Danube that are notable for their appeal to sightseers. In fact, a great many vessels sail along the river in service of the tourism industry; more than 70 boats ply its waters at the height of the holiday season.
And this is the case in Budapest, too, where a number of river boats present tourists with the opportunity to experience the sights around the Danube. This was precisely the purpose the Hableány vessel had had since 2003. But on May 29, 2019, a horrible event brought a tragic end to the 60-year-old boat.
That evening, the Hableány was sailing along the Danube as normal, carrying 31 tourists from South Korea. A pair of tour advisers from the Asian country were also on board at the time as well as a captain and a crew member from Hungary. But just after 9:00 p.m., disaster struck.
As the Hableány passed beneath a bridge close to the city’s Parliament Building, another boat – the much larger Viking Sigyn – hit the craft and ended up rocking the Soviet-made vessel sideways. For a sense of scale, the Viking Sigyn measures about 443 feet long and can carry 190 passengers.
Fortunately, a CCTV camera captured the incident, with its footage ultimately allowing authorities to build a picture of what happened. And from the video taken, police have reportedly gleaned an idea of the events of that day. According to the authorities, the Hableány quickly slipped onto its side after the collision with the Viking Sigyn.
And one person aboard the Viking Sigyn at the time would later describe the incident to the BBC. “The whole thing happened very quickly,” Clay Findley said in May 2019. “I thought at first we were going to miss [the Hableány], but the front of the Viking hit the back of that little boat… And then the hull popped up on the opposite side of the ship just a few seconds later, and then it was down.”
Just before the fateful accident, the Hableány had apparently been edging towards the banks of the Danube so that she could drop off her passengers. But as she did so, the vessel seemed to drift faintly to the side. This ultimately took her into the course of the Viking Sigyn, which had been sailing alongside the smaller craft.
Speaking after the incident, a police spokesperson informed the press about what exactly had gone on. “Both ships were heading north, and when they arrived between two pillars of the Margit Bridge, for some reason the [Hableány] turned in front of the Viking ship,” the individual revealed. “As the Viking [came] into contact with [the Hableány], it [overturned]. And in about seven seconds… it sank.”
Then, after the Hableány had been knocked over on its side, the authorities were quickly informed. And ten minutes after the collision, ambulance crews and the police made it to the scene. Naturally, rescue operations commenced immediately, with more than 200 medical professionals and divers going on to assist in the effort within a matter of hours.
But in spite of the large numbers of rescue workers present, weather conditions posed a major problem in aiding the ship and her passengers. You see, the area had apparently experienced high levels of rain in the days leading up to the incident, and this precipitation had ultimately increased the depth of the Danube considerably.
And on top of the fearsome rains, strong winds also battered the area. The waters of the river flowed at great speeds, too, with this therefore making it difficult to see anything beneath the surface. Even worse, the strong currents were interfering with divers’ abilities to get to the Hableány to recover any trapped passengers.
Speaking to the press after the incident, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Péter Szijjártó, elaborated on the tough situation. “Every single condition is working against the success of our work,” he said. “Those participating in the search-and-rescue efforts are having to deal with extraordinary circumstances.”
And Pal Gyorfi – a worker with Hungary’s national ambulance service – put a grim face on proceedings. “I am not inclined to say there is no hope, so I would rather say there is minimal hope [of finding survivors],” Gyorfi said, according to the U.K. newspaper Metro. “This is not just because of the water temperature, but [also] the strong currents in the river [and] the vapor above the water surface as well as the clothes worn by the people who fell in.”
Yet while the outlook for the passengers may have seemed bleak, there was thankfully some good news. Yes, rescuers managed to retrieve seven people who’d been aboard the Hableány from the river following the collision. These passengers had been sent flying from the top deck of the vessel, after which the current had carried many down the river; one individual had even made it as far away as two miles or so. All survivors later ended up in hospital and had treatment for shock and hypothermia.
And one 31-year-old passenger spoke to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency in the wake of the incident. “The current was so fast, and people were floating away,” the woman said. Another female survivor recalled, “The boat flipped instantly and capsized.” She also claimed to have noticed around ten people who’d been unable to get out of the vessel.
Tragically, then, seven bodies were also recovered from the waters, leaving 21 people still unaccounted for. And the prospects of these people surviving may have appeared slim, as rescue conditions were extremely tough and currents were strong. In fact, the body of one of the deceased passengers was reportedly recovered around seven and a half miles away from the site of the collision.
And as it happens, a whole five days passed before a significant diving mission could take place. János Hajdu, who is the head of Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Centre, had the task of organizing the dive, although he warned at the time that the workers under his command had been forbidden from going inside the wrecked vessel.
Indeed, it was ultimately considered too dangerous for anybody to enter the sunken boat in search of bodies. But even so, this initial mission led to the recovery of an eighth deceased passenger. And that same day, searchers found a ninth person around 68 miles away from Budapest, with that individual having seemingly been dragged away by the current.
On June 4, rescue authorities recovered a tenth body. Then soon after that, the police had announced that the remains of an 11th passenger had been retrieved from Kulcs – a small town located around 43 miles away from Margit Bridge. A 12th victim was also discovered in Adony, which lies roughly 36 miles away from the crash site.
And on June 5 the Counter Terrorism Centre stated that three more bodies had been picked out of the river. Three others were found the following day – one of whom had been a member of the Hableány’s crew. Then, on June 8 another body was discovered, with 20 passengers now confirmed deceased; another eight were still unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, throughout this initial period, the Hableány had stayed rooted to the bottom of the Danube’s riverbed. And although the authorities intended to use a floating crane by the name of Clark Ádám to raise the ship, there’d initially been a real problem with this plan.
Given the Clark Ádám’s considerable size, you see, the crane was unable to make it to the site of the collision. Bridges were obstructing the route, and so the only way in which the machinery could pass underneath these structures was if the water levels of the Danube lowered. This ultimately meant that the crane didn’t get to work until June 11.
Just under two weeks after the incident had occurred, then, the Clark Ádám was finally able to begin plucking the Hableány from the river. At roughly 7:00 a.m. on June 11, the vessel’s steering room breached the surface, after which a pair of rescue divers got the go-ahead to take a look inside.
Here the divers reportedly uncovered the remains of a person thought to be the captain of the Hableány. And over the next hour and a half, rescuers apparently retrieved three more South Korean victims from the wreckage. One of them, tragically, was a girl of just six years of age.
But although conditions at the site had eased enough to allow the Clark Ádám to get to work, the operation was still perilous. In fact, The Guardian has reported that one rescue worker had actually been pulled into the water and nearly dragged downstream. Thankfully, however, this person ultimately got themselves out of harm’s way.
The Clark Ádám then steadily raised the remainder of the Hableány. Yet while rescuers pumped water out of the wrecked vessel to ease the process along, the operation proved far from easy. Referring to the visibility underwater, diver Zoltan Papp stated to Reuters, “It was like being in heavy snowfall or fog.”
Having finally brought the Hableány to the surface of the river, salvagers then placed her on another nearby vessel. The ship subsequently went to Csepel Island, where police aimed to undertake a series of analyses. And after the boat had been cleared of mud, officials finally stated that no more human remains remained aboard.
But, of course, there were still missing passengers – all of whom had likely sadly perished – to find. On June 12, 2019, police discovered a body in the Danube, meaning only three of the victims remained unaccounted for. Then South Korean newspaper The Dong-A Ilbo went on to report that searchers had found female remains on June 22. If authorities confirm these as belonging to a victim of the collision, that would mean just two people are yet to be discovered as of the start of July 2019.
Meanwhile, shortly after the incident had occurred, police apprehended the captain of the Viking Sigyn and consequently held the 64-year-old from Ukraine under suspicion of putting the water traffic around his vessel in peril. According to one of the captain’s legal representatives, however, he has denied allegations of any culpability.
But while the authorities have continued to investigate the incident vigorously, the precise nature of events have remained unclear. Ultimately, then, police released the captain of the Viking Sigyn on bail. And although the man in charge of the ship rejects the notion that he was responsible for the fatal accident, his representatives have reportedly claimed that he’d been left “devastated” by the tragedy.
A number of official statements also emerged in the wake of the collision, with one coming from Lee Sang-moo – the head of the business that had organized the tour for the South Koreans. “I deeply apologize to the parties affected by the accident, families of victims and the people who are suffering after hearing the news this morning,” he said. “I understand that the boat took every precaution.”
And according to Mihaly Toth, who was speaking on behalf of the business that operated the Hableány, the incident had been a complete shock. “It was just an average day, and this was a regular trip,” he said. “We carry out thousands of tourist boat trips every day. There were no signs that something like this could happen.”
This assertion is disputed, however, by a crew member of another vessel that has sailed along the Danube. Speaking to the BBC, Andras Kurbely has pointed out that traffic in Budapest’s section of the Danube has recently been on the rise. “It’s just not healthy to have so many large ships – which are much more powerful and harder to maneuver – carving a route between so many smaller boats,” he said.
So, currently, it remains uncertain what changes – if any – will come about regarding the river traffic in the Danube. Indeed, we’ll also have to wait and see whether culpability for the incident can ever truly be established. But one would certainly hope that measures are taken to prevent such a devastating tragedy from ever occurring again.