BUDAPEST, Hungary — The captain of a river cruise boat that collided with another vessel in Hungary's capital in 2019, killing at least 27 people who were mostly tourists from South Korea, was found guilty on Tuesday of negligence leading to a fatal mass catastrophe and sentenced to five years and six months in prison.
Judge Leona Nemeth with the Pest Central District Court found that the negligence of the Ukrainian captain, 68-year-old Yuriy Chaplinsky, had led to his boat, the Viking Sigyn, colliding with the tourist boat Hableany (Mermaid) from behind on the Danube river, causing that boat to sink within seconds.
In its ruling, the court acquitted Chaplinsky of 35 counts of failure to render aid. Both Chaplinksy and the prosecution have appealed the court's decision, and the judge remanded the defendent to house arrest pending a new trial.
The collision occurred May 29, 2019, when the Hableany, carrying 35 people, sank after being struck beneath Budapest's Margit Bridge by the much larger Viking Sigyn.
Seven South Koreans were rescued from the water in the heavy rain following the collision, and 27 people were recovered dead including the two-member Hungarian crew. One South Korean woman is still unaccounted-for.
Some of the victims’ bodies were found weeks after the crash more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) downstream.
The Hableany spent more than 12 days underwater at the collision site near the neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament building, before being lifted from the river bed by a floating crane.
Chaplinsky, the captain of the Viking Sigyn, has been in police custody since the collision, including being remanded to house arrest in Hungary since 2020. The judge ordered the time Chaplinsky has already served to count toward his five-and-a-half-year sentence.
In a final statement before the verdict Tuesday, Chaplinsky called the collision a “horrible tragedy," and said that the deaths of “so many innocent victims" kept him awake at night.
"This will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he said.
Three staffers from the South Korean Embassy in Budapest were present for the reading of the verdict, but no South Korean family members of the victims attended the hearing.
After the proceedings, Zsolt Sogor, a lawyer with the prosecution, said the verdict was in line with legal requirements, but that prosecutors believed Chaplinsky was liable for failing to render aid to the Hableany after the collision.
“I feel sorry for this person. He really did commit (this act) negligently," Sogor said. "But our opinion differs from that of the court in that according to our perspective, the captain of a ship must act. It's not enough that his sailors go and perform a rescue. He should have coordinated the entire rescue to save human lives.”
“We will see what happens during the appeal. It's possible (the sentence) will be harsher, but one thing is for sure: It won't be reduced,” he said.