South Korean tourist Sunghyun Cho, 37, was on a dive tour to see coral reefs at Ao Lah, the northernmost bay on the east side of the island, on Oct 19 when he began moving frantically as if experiencing breathing difficulties, according to initial reports.
Pongsathorn Madnui, the 34-year-old Thai dive instructor leading Mr Cho on his dive, went to Mr Cho’s assistance, but both men “collapsed” before reaching the surface.
The dive was reportedly to a depth of no more than seven metres.
The men were pulled onto the boat, which took them to shore at Chalong Pier before they were taken to the Accident & Emergency unit of the yet-to-open Chalong Hospital, where doctors tried unsuccessfully to revive them. (See stories here and here.)
“We will charge Island Wonders Co Ltd as the tour operator does not have accident insurance coverage for tourists and tour guides while conducting their tours,” Col Terdtoon told The Phuket News yesterday (Nov 1).
Chalong Police Deputy Chief Lt Col Chana Soottimas also confirmed that the charge will be pressed.
“The company used to have accident injury insurance as required by law, but it had expired at the time of the incident,” he explained.
Under the “Ministerial Regulation On The Permission To Conduct Tourism Business” issued in 2013, Clause 2 stipulates that any person who intends to apply for any type of tourism business licence shall provide “a copy of insurance policy, accident insurance for tourist, tour guide, and tour leader during travelling with no less than one million baht per person of face amount coverage in case of death, dismemberment, or infirmity and with no less than five hundred thousand baht per person in case of injury, and a policy period shall not be less than one year from the application date of licence to conduct the tourism business”. (See regulation here.)
However, Atipong Sangsilp, Chief of Tourism Business and Guide Registration Office (TGBR) Region 2 office, on Thursday (Oct 31) told a provincial committee setup to investigate dive tour safety measures that the company Island Wonders Co Ltd was legally registered.
As the TGBR Region 2 Chief, Mr Atipong oversees the legal registration of all tourism businesses and tour guides in Phuket as well as Phang Nga, Krabi, Trang and Ranong.
Mr Atipong yesterday (Nov 1) told The Phuket News, “I didn’t know that Chalong Police were to charge Island Wonders Co Ltd, I will look into that immediately.”
Asked how the company could still operate without the mandatory insurance, Mr Aititpong explained, “I confirmed that they had the required insurance when applied to continue their registration. Tourism business registrations last two years, but the accident insurance must be renewed annually.
“So we can’t know whether a tour company’s insurance is still valid until they come to apply to continue their business registration with us,” he said.
Asked his next action would be on the matter, Mr Atipong said, “I need to talk with Chalong Police.”
The meeting focussing on dive tour safety held at Phuket Provincial Hall on Thursday followed Phuket Governor Phakaphong Tavipatana last week ordering relevant officials to take serious steps to address dive tour safety.
Governor Phakaphong tasked Vice Governor Supoj Rotreuang Na Nongkhai with the responsibility of overseeing the measures to be taken.
Although the meeting on Thursday started at 1:30pm, after 20 minutes reporters were asked to leave the chamber and the doors to the meeting were closed.
After the meeting, Vice Governor Supoj told The Phuket News, "I ordered the TBGR office to investigate Island Wonders Co Ltd.
“The TBGR has also been ordered to check the tour business registrations of all tour companies operating on Racha Island. The TGBR is to do this with the assistance of a team of other officials, which I set up today,” he added.
Chief Atipong said that he had called the owner of Island Wonders Co Ltd to come to the TBGR office in Phuket Town to be questioned about the mandatory accident insurance and other details.
“If they do not present themselves by Nov 5, the TBGR will suspend their tourism business licence,” he said.
“Next we will make inspect 10 tour businesses on Koh Racha to make sure they are complying with the law,” he added.
Royal Thai Navy Capt Thammawat Malaisukrin, Deputy Chief of Thai Maritime Enforcement Command Center (Thai-MECC) in Phuket, who was also present at the meeting, told The Phuket News that he had raised the issue for freelance dive instructors being used by dive tour companies.
“I urged Mr Atipong to look into freelance divers who work for tour companies, because this is potential issue,” Capt Thammawat said.
“The relevant officials must have safety measures to check dive equipment and the experience and qualifications the freelance dive instructors they hire,” he added.
V/Gov Supoj admitted to The Phuket News that he has yet to fully appreciate how tour companies using freelance dive instructors, whether Thai and foreign, affects safety on dive tours.
“These issue are still unclear. Also we do not have any officials who are clearly responsible for making sure that dive tour equipment is safe,” he said.
NO DIVE SAFETY LAWS
Vice Governor Supoj noted that there are currently no regulations specifically drafted to address safety measures in the dive industry.
The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources in September published a handbook in Thai and English explaining the laws and regulations regarding dive tours. The handbook does list “best practices” and “standards” for dive safety, with a very strong emphasis on safety, but sets out guidelines, not laws specific laws that can be enforced. The actual laws mentioned in the handbook are in regard to protecting the environment only. (See handbook in English here.)
Likewise, Phuket Marine Office Director Wiwat Chitchertwong this week told The Phuket News that his office was not involved in dive tour safety, and hence was not even called to attend the meeting.
“This does not concern us. We look after only water transportation and water transportation accidents. This incident happened from human activity in the water. There is nothing that we are supposed to be involved in with this right now,” Mr Wiwat said.
Regardless, V/Gov Supoj said he was taking the issue of dive tour safety very seriously.
"Safety measures are our main concern, and so I am looking for ways for make diving activities safer. Also, I have raised the idea with relevant officials to create a diving guideline handbook for tourists. I have not concluded those details yet.
"At the meeting, we talked about what laws we can enforce on dive tours, because currently there are no direct laws that regulate diving activities,” he said.
Vice Governor Supoj did point out that “Try Dive” tours, which teach beginners the basics of scuba diving, will come under scrutiny first.
"We have not come up with any specifics for Try Dive tours yet because we need to understand the bigger picture, but we will focus on Try Dive first and we need to figure out it quickly," he said.
Meanwhile, Suprawee Sukkerd, a representative from the Association of Thailand Underwater Sports (ATUS) who was present at the meeting, declined to comment to The Phuket News after the meeting had concluded.
While no officers from the Chalong Police attended the meeting on Thursday, before reporters were asked to leave the chamber Maj Ekkachai Siri of the Phuket Tourist Police explained to everyone at the meeting that Mr Cho and Mr Pongsathorn both died while on a Try Dive tour.
Maj Ekkachai said that officers had questioned Mr Cho’s widow, who told police that Mr Cho was an experienced diver. However, he added that he had yet to see confirmation of any diving certifications issued to Mr Cho.
“Forensic Police have taken tissue samples from Mr Cho to try to confirm what caused his death,” Maj Ekkachai said.
However, tissue samples could not be taken from the body of Mr Pongsathorn as his family would not permit it as religious beliefs mandated that he be buried as quickly as appropriately possible, he explained.
Maj Ekkachai said that police were still working on having expert inspections made of the dive equipment involved in the two deaths, but offered no progress on that front.
At last report, Chalong Police Chief Col Terdtoon explained that his officers were still attempting to identify experts qualified to inspect the dive equipment as part of the police investigation.
“All the breathing apparatus – the air tanks, compressor and filter system – are here at Chalong Police Station,” Col Terdtoon said last week (Oct 24).
“We have spoken with Forensic Police about this, but they said they do not have any officers qualified for investigating this equipment. At this stage I don’t which officials can conduct a proper inspection. We are looking for a specialists to check these things for us,” he added. (See story here.)