Vietnamese crew speaks out about ship sinking incident in disputed waters

The captain, crew and owner of Dna 90152 TS in Da Nang on May 31

Story highlights

  • Last week's incident saw fishing boat scuttled near disputed islands
  • Crew of fishing boat reportedly rammed say a Chinese military vessel attacked them
  • China places blame on fishing boat's crew

When fishing in fiercely-contested territorial waters, a certain amount of risk must be assumed. For the crew of Vietnamese fishing boat Dna 90152 TS, the worst-case scenario happened early last week when their ship was capsized by what they insist was a Chinese military vessel.

The ship's captain, Dang Van Nhan, told CNN via an interpreter that on May 26, he and his crew were sailing in Vietnamese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) waters, around 17 nautical miles (NM) from a Chinese oil rig near the Paracel Islands. The islands in the South China Sea have become the centerpiece in a territorial row between China and Vietnam.

The crew was working their wooden fishing boat around 4 p.m. when they noticed a vessel steaming towards their ship.

"After this, we ran away. They crashed into our right side and then the left. Then our boat turned over. All ten crew members had to swim. After this, we were rescued by (sister ship) Dna 90508. We swam for around ten minutes."

The fishermen's report is at odds with the Chinese version of events. According to China's state-run Xinhua news agency, the Vietnamese vessel had been "harassing" a Chinese fishing boat in waters near the Paracel Islands, a largely uninhabited archipelago also known by the Chinese as the Xisha Islands. The Xinhua report said the ship overturned after it "jostled" a Chinese fishing boat.

Lucky escape

Dang counts his blessings that the other Vietnamese fishing boat was nearby and able to rescue him and his crew.

    Fishing boat owner Huynh Thi Nhu Hoa shows an image of her sunken vessel
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    "We are very lucky that the crash happened during the daytime. We were lucky that some friends could see us."

    The incident, from first collision to the abandonment of the vessel took only four minutes, Dang says. The crew didn't even have time to don life jackets.

    Two of his crew suffered minor injuries including Ngyuen Huynh Ba Bian, who suffered abrasions on his leg, shoulder and chest, as well as a cut near his right eye.

    "The Chinese ship(s) made no attempt to rescue our crew," Dang said. "We saw a lot of Chinese ships -- only one was used to ram us, but there were lots around. Despite the sinking, none of the Chinese ships acted (to rescue the crew)."

    The boat, which was valued at 5 billion Vietnamese Dong ($237,000), remains scuttled in the seas around the Paracel Islands. Because of superstition, the boat is unlikely to be salvaged and used again, says its owner, Huynh Thi Nhu Hoa.

    READ: How an oil rig sparked anti-China riots in Vietnam

    The boat had fished these waters for years before the recent controversy arose, Ngyuen said. He said that isolated incidents had occurred between ships from the two sides for several years, but since the oil rig had been installed, the number of attacks has escalated sharply.

    Shifting blame

    The official Chinese line is that the sinking is entirely the fault of the Vietnamese crew.

    "One Vietnamese fishing boat forcefully intruded into the caution area of China 981 drilling rig and ran into the left side of a Chinese fishing boat at the site and then capsized," Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qing Gang said at a briefing the day after the incident. "I want to stress that the direct cause for this incident is ... the Vietnamese side."

    Dang and his crew deny this version of events.

    "The Chinese statement is wrong," Dang said. "The Chinese ship was six times larger (than our fishing boat). Our ship is wooden, that one was steel. It is nonsense that our boat would approach or try to ram a ship that size."

    Government involvement?

    Dang says he suspects that the boat belonged to the Chinese Coast Guard and was disguised to look like a fishing vessel, because it contained a steel hull, rather than the traditional wood.

    He says it was also flying a Chinese flag, although in these waters, where national identity means everything, this doesn't necessarily indicate official involvement in the incident. However, he says experience tells them that it was a government vessel.

    Ngyuen chimes in: "We only saw one person on the Chinese ship. He threw a glass bottle at our boat. Besides him, we didn't see anyone."

    READ: Chinese ships reach Vietnam to evacuate citizens

    The Chinese government has not offered compensation, says Hyunh, the boat's owner. They have not had any contact from the Chinese at all. They cannot afford to buy a new boat, she says.

    "Now the crew are jobless," she says. "We have to lay them off until we have the new ship. This incident has cost us 5 billion Dong ($237,000). Our family lives off the revenue of fishing and we haven't raised the money to buy a new one."

    The local government has offered around 800 million Dong ($37,800) in compensation, and a government official tells CNN that the local authorities also cover the fishing fleet's insurance, which will pay out around half the cost of a new boat.

    Despite the real, present danger that fishing these waters has presented, the Vietnamese owner and crew are not willing to cede an inch of territory.

    "Of course we have to return to the Paracel Islands," Hyunh says. "It's the traditional area of Vietnamese fishing. They are the only good fishing areas for us."