Malaysian authorities on Monday scoured 2,400 square nautical miles off the eastern state of Sabah as they searched by air and sea for four Chinese tourists and a crewman after a boat carrying 30 people sank over the weekend.
As of 7 p.m. Monday (local time), authorities confirmed that three Chinese nationals had died while 20 tourists and two crewmen had been rescued. Authorities told reporters the search would go on through the night.
The owner had breached procedures, including overloading the boat, Sabah state Police Commissioner Ramli Din told state news agency Bernama. The owner and the two rescued crewmen were being held in police custody.
“Police will also investigate whether negligence led to the deaths of the tourists,” Ramli said.
The high-speed boat carrying a crew of three and 27 tourists – all from China – was on its way to Mengalum island, a tourist destination 56 km (35 miles) northwest of Kota Kinabalu, the state capital, when it encountered heavy and pounding waves and sank on Saturday morning, according to authorities.
The boat had left the jetty in Kota Kinabalu around 9 a.m., but when it failed to reach the island 12 hours later, the tour company filed a report the vessel was missing.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that authorities were monitoring developments after Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday had “demanded all-out search and rescue efforts,” Xinhua news, China’s official news agency, reported.
Xinhua added that an emergency team, led by an official from Beijing’s national tourism administration, had been mobilized to handle the incident.
“Yesterday was the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year and it should have been a happy day. Unfortunately, such a bad thing happened,” China’s consul-general in Sabah, Chen Peijie, told Bernama on Sunday.
The Chinese call for an all-out search effort stemmed from concerns tied to the March 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The passengers included 153 Chinese nationals.
“I take the Sabah boat capsize tragedy very seriously, and I want a thorough investigation to identify the cause of the incident,” Najib said in a Facebook post Monday.
Investigators had reported that 28 passengers were on board, but, late Monday, a top official in the state clarified the figure. “Our latest investigations shows only 27 tourist from China boarded the boat. So four tourists and one crewman are still missing,” Ramli tweeted.
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), said 20 tourists and the two crewmen were plucked from the sea by passing fishing boats on Sunday after having spent close to 32 hours in rough and choppy waters near Brunei, it said in a statement.
Ahmad Puzi Kahar, head of the MMEA, said “the boat ‘broke’ after being hit by waves and sank” about an hour into the one-and-a-half hour trip to the island – after interrogating the crew.
Malaysian authorities have deployed 13 vessels, two aircrafts and three helicopters with neighboring Brunei deploying a vessel and an aircraft in the mission, the MMEA said on Monday.