Asian Tsunami Heros

Monday, May 23, 2005

Sub pilot's sea skills saved lives

PHUKET, Thailand (CNN) -- One of the most unusual tsunami survival stories follows a Beatles song that a group of survivors will probably be humming for the rest of their lives: We all lived in our Yellow Submarine.

Good fortune and astute seamanship probably saved 31 people who were scheduled to be underwater and floating dangerously close to a reef in the brightly colored-sub when the big waves swept through last Sunday.

In all likelihood, the surge would have pushed the low-powered submarine into the reef, with dire consequences for those on board.

The passengers included Americans, Thais, Swedes, Germans, Japanese, at least two children and a babe in arms.

Chris Hinson, 35, the pilot and operations manager of the submarine, said: "I don't even want to think what might have happened if we had been inside the submarine at that point. We were really lucky."

The Deep Star 48 vessel has been carrying vacationers to view coral off the small Thai island of Mai Ton five times a day since December in 2003.

Hinson, from Hawaii, said he was surprised at the size of one wave as the passengers were being ferried out to the dive point from the pier at Chalong, on the larger resort island of Phuket.

The crew of the Phuket Submarine company monitor tides, moon phases and sea currents constantly for safety.

Alongside the submarine, about 200 meters (yards) off Mai Ton, Mr Hinson noted swirling waters in what was supposed to be period of slack tide.

His experience in Hawaii, where undersea disturbances are known, made him concerned.

But the former nuclear submarine crewman knew that the Andaman Sea region was regarded as much more stable.

"I went down into the submarine with the guests," he said. "Before we dive, we do a safety briefing which gives the pilot time to adjust the ballast weight. While I was doing that, I took a call from our surface chief who asked me to come up because the water was very strange."

An alert came from Phuket to confirm there had been an earthquake, and the passengers were offloaded onto the transfer boat and sheltered from the tsunami by the island.

Some of the holidaymakers were irate at having their underwater trip cancelled -- but less upset afterwards as they watched the waves lean the large maintenance ship to one side and then viewed Phuket's devastated seashore.

There are about 50 similar low-powered tourist submarines around the world in an industry that has so far never incurred a fatality.

Phuket's Yellow Submarine is set to go into service again on Monday.


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