HA LONG BAY, Vietnam — Italian traveler Stefano Corda felt an ominous tilt as dinner was served, but his tour boat crew assured him everything was fine. A few hours later, Corda and his friend jumped for their lives into Vietnam’s famed Ha Long Bay as water raced inside the wooden vessel, sucking it down and killing 12 people from nine countries.
Vacationers from the U.S., Britain, Australia, Japan, Russia, France, Sweden and Switzerland died along with their Vietnamese tour guide Thursday in Vietnam’s deadliest tour boat accident since the country opened to foreign visitors 25 years ago. All were sleeping on the overnight ship, which was anchored in about 30 feet of water near a small island.
Nine foreigners and six Vietnamese survived only by flinging themselves overboard and swimming to other tour boats anchored nearby.
"We woke up at 5, and the boat took one minute to sink," Corda, 35, of Palermo, Italy, told Associated Press Television News. "We went to the exit and the boat was almost vertical. I grabbed my friend, we went out, and it was so fast."
Ha Long Bay is one of the country’s top tourist attractions, drawing more than 5 million visitors a year to the province where 1,600 stunning jagged rock formations rise out of the bay, forming tiny islands. Many visitors stay overnight on wooden boats equipped with sleeping cabins and eating quarters.
Police are investigating what caused the accident, and a Vietnamese official called for checks on safety of the more than 100 tour boats that ply the bay.
Corda’s friend, Stefano Sacconi, 33, of Rome, was in the bathroom just before the disaster struck. He thought he felt the boat buckling on its right side and soon realized they needed to get out. And fast.
"We started to hear tables and glasses falling from the top of the restaurant," he said. "After that, my friend went out. He called me, ‘Come up! Come up! Something’s wrong here! The boat is going down!’"
They jumped from the junk and swam to another nearby ship.
Other survivors reported seeing a wooden plank ripping away from the ship around 5 a.m., followed by gushing water inundating the boat and quickly pulling it under near Titov island, about an hour from mainland’s shore, said Vu Van Thin, chief administrator of Quang Ninh province. The boat was still anchored from the night when it sank.
Several feet of the masts were still visible, and Thin said crews were working to bring in a crane to pull the boat out. Divers worked to free the bodies still inside Thursday morning.
There were 27 people, including six crew members, aboard the boat and all have been accounted for, Thin said. The vessel, which is owned by Truong Hai Co., was anchored alongside dozens of other cruise boats and weather conditions were calm at the time of the sinking.
The dead have been sent to Bai Chay Hospital for identification, where survivors received treatment for minor injuries, said Ngo Van Hung, director of Ha Long Bay’s management board.
The official Vietnam News Agency published the victims’ names and ages, most of them aged 20 to 25, seven were women. They include a Briton, two Americans, one Japanese, one French, two Swedes, two Russians, one Swiss and one person of Vietnamese origin living in Australia, according to the government.
One of the victims was believed to be Samantha Kay Taylor, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who was overseas teaching in China and traveling.
Colorado media said her boyfriend, George Fosmire, 23, a University of Colorado at Boulder student, said on his blog he was traveling with Taylor. Fosmire’s father said his son had gone to the morgue to help identify the bodies of his girlfriend and a good friend who had been traveling with them.
"This is a very rare and very unfortunate accident," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga. She said tour companies should improve safety measures in Ha Long Bay.
Police have launched a criminal investigation into the cause of the accident, which remained unclear Thursday.
Bai Chay Hospital deputy director, Giang Quoc Duy, said survivors "were in a panic."
"They were given first aid treatment and have already returned to their hotels," he said.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry confirmed the survivors as two Danes, one German, two Italians, one American, one Australian, one French and one Swiss.
Ha Long Bay, a U.N. World Heritage site dotted with limestone formations, is located near the Chinese border in the Gulf of Tonkin about three hours east of the capital, Hanoi.
More than 100 cruise boats are licensed to offer overnight service there, and last year the province received 5.4 million visitors, nearly half of them foreigners, according to government websites.
The bay has seen boats go down in the past. In 2009, a tour boat sank during a storm, killing five, including three foreign vacationers. In 2006, a powerful wind storm capsized several boats, killing 13 people, though no tourists were among the dead. In 2002, strong winds capsized two tourist boats, killing several foreigners.
Associated Press writers Tran Van Minh and Margie Mason contributed to this report from Hanoi, Vietnam, and Sheila V Kumar contributed from Denver.