BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A Hungarian judge on Saturday ordered the formal arrest of a captain whose Viking river cruise ship collided with a sightseeing boat on the Danube River, sinking the tourist boat and leaving seven South Koreans dead and 21 other people missing.
Authorities said water levels in Budapest are expected to fall quickly in the coming days, helping efforts to salvage the wreckage that may still contain victims’ bodies.
The judge ordered the 64-year-old Ukrainian captain of the Viking Sigyn cruise ship formally arrested for 30 days. He said the captain could be released on bail — subject to him wearing a tracking device and remaining in Budapest — but prosecutors are appealing that decision.
The Viking ship collided Wednesday evening with a much smaller sightseeing boat carrying 35 people, most of them South Korean tourists, in Budapest, the capital. Seven people were rescued.
Divers so far have been unable to even approach the wreckage of the 27-meter (88½-foot) tour boat due to high water levels, strong currents and murky waters. A Hungarian military ship has been anchored at the site to help the salvage operation.
The captain is suspected of endangering water traffic causing a fatal mass disaster, which carries a sentence of 2 to 8 years.
“The substantiated suspicion is supported by the report from the scene, photographs, video recordings and more,” the court said, adding that the suspect must be available for authorities investigating the deadly crash.
The captain, identified only as Yuriy C. in line with Hungarian laws, has been in custody since Thursday. His lawyers dispute that their client made any mistakes leading to the collision, which took place under a heavy rain and with restricted visibility on the river.
Defense lawyer Gabor Elo said there are no grounds to consider his client a suspect in the case, arguing that the prosecution’s request for the arrest was motivated only by the fact that the captain is a Ukrainian citizen.
Elo said his client “is very sorry that he was involved in such an accident in which so many people lost their lives or are missing.”
Hungarian police spokesman Kristof Gal said the seven confirmed victims, all South Koreans, have been identified with the help of South Korean authorities by using finger and palm prints and showing photos to relatives.
Some victims’ relatives and friends on Saturday visited the site of the collision under the city’s Margit Bridge, one of the seven main bridges over the Danube in Budapest, close to the neo-gothic Hungarian parliament building. Flowers tributes and candles have been placed along the bridge.
High spring water levels have so far hampered recovery efforts for the missing but Hungarian authorities hoped that would soon change.
Water management authorities said Saturday the Danube River’s water levels will soon peak at around 5.9 meters (19 feet, 5 inches) and fall to about 4 meters (13 feet) by the middle of next week. It added that no rainfall affecting water levels was expected in the next six days.
AP Writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed.