2 dead, 24 injured in research shipwreck; investigation starts


TAIPEI — The Ministry of Science and Technology has set up a task force to help determine why its newest research ship sank Friday night near Penghu, leaving two dead and 24 injured, Science Minister Simon Chang said Saturday.

The task force, set up with the ministry’s National Applied Research Laboratories, will focus on handling follow-up issues related to the ship’s demise and cooperating with prosecutors in looking into the cause of the wreck, he said.

Chang would not speculate on what caused the accident, but he said weather conditions turned ugly on Friday after having been acceptable when the research ship set sail from Tainan on Thursday.

The 2,700-ton RV Ocean Researcher V sank off the outlying county of Penghu in stormy waters around 8:11 p.m. Friday, less than three hours after it first issued a distress call, officials said.

Sea and air rescue efforts continued several hours after that, and all 45 people on board — 27 researchers and an 18-member crew — were all accounted for.

The accident occurred as the two-year-old ship was sailing north to conduct environmental research.

The two dead have been identified as Hsu Shih-chieh, a research fellow with Academia Sinica, and Lin Yi-chun of the Taiwan Ocean Research Institute.

The 24 injured have been sent to hospitals in Penghu and Chiayi, and none of their injuries were said to be life-threatening.

As the investigation into the cause of the accident got underway, prosecutors confirmed that the two victims died of drowning during rescue efforts conducted by the military and the Coast Guard Administration.

The Air Force sent two S-70C rescue helicopters, two EC225 helicopters and two C-130 transport planes, while the Navy sent four ships to help with the search and rescue mission, said the Ministry of National Defense. The Coast Guard Administration also dispatched four ships to help, it said.

Survivors said they heard a banging sound before water began to flow into the vessel around 5 p.m.

Experts suspected that the ship hit a coral reef near the island of Penghu before sinking, possibly after drifting from its planned route due to high waves and strong currents triggered the periphery of Typhoon Vongfong.

Transportation Minister Yeh Kuang-shih said Saturday morning that the ship may have drifted off course because it suffered a mechanical malfunction and lost power.

Local media have also raised questions about the competence of the crew, which is contracted out and rotated on a three-month basis, suggesting a possible lack of experience with the vessel.

Chang said the research ship, which cost NT$1.46 billion (US$48 million) to build, is insured for NT$1.5 billion, and his ministry will first examine the level of damage of the ill-fated vessel before deciding whether to repair it.

The locally built research ship is 72.6 meters long and 15.4 meters wide, with a range of 13,000 nautical miles. It was commissioned in August 2012.