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Thai navy searching for 31 missing sailors after ship sinks

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BANGKOK (AP) – Thai naval vessels and helicopters searched Monday for more than 30 sailors who are still missing more than 17 hours after their warship sank in the Gulf of Thailand in rough seas.

As of Monday afternoon, 75 sailors from the HTMS Sukhothai corvette had been rescued and 31 more were missing, the navy said. The high waves that caused the accident had subsided since Sunday night’s sinking, but were still high enough to endanger small boats, the Navy said.

A rescued crew member interviewed by Thailand’s PBS television said he had to float in the sea for three hours before being rescued. He said the ship was buffeted by 10-foot waves as it sank on Sunday night, complicating rescue efforts.

“The waves are still high and we can’t look for them from the horizontal. We need to control the helicopters and look for them from a bird’s eye view instead,” said Navy spokesman Adm. Pokkrong Monthatphalin against the Thai PBS.

Eleven of the rescued sailors were treated in a hospital. The Navy denied a local media report that one death had been confirmed, saying it was an accident involving another boat.

Strong winds blew seawater onto the HTMS Sukhothai and knocked out the electrical system on Sunday night, making control of the ship difficult. The navy sent three frigates and two helicopters with mobile pumping machines to try and help the disabled ship clear the seawater, but they were unable to do so due to the high winds.

The loss of power allowed more seawater to flow into the ship, causing it to list and sink.

Thailand’s Meteorological Department had issued a weather advisory for the general area just hours before the accident, stating that waves in the Gulf of Thailand were expected to be 2-4 meters high with thunderstorms. It suggested all ships “proceed with caution” and warned small craft not to go to sea until Tuesday.

The Sukhothai was built in Tacoma, Washington, and commissioned in 1987. With a maximum displacement of 959 tons and a length of 76.8 meters (252 feet), it is about medium size for a corvette, a type of armed vessel typically used in used for patrolling near offshore waters.

The warship had been on patrol 32 kilometers (20 mi) from the pier in Bangsaphan district of Prachuap Khiri Khan province. Pokkrong said the ship was on regular patrol to help fishing boats that needed help.

“Our top priority now is to rescue all sailors. We intend to salvage the ship later,” he said. The search was conducted in a 16-square-kilometre (6.2 sq mi) area around the site of the sinking.

While northern and central Thailand are seeing the coldest temperatures of the year, the far south of Thailand has experienced storms and flooding in recent days.