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(7th LD) Death toll rises to 14 in ferry sinking

2014/04/17 22:35

(ATTN: RECASTS headline; UPDATES with new figures, resumption of search operations; TRIMS)

JINDO/SEOUL, South Korea, April 17 (Yonhap) -- Rescuers fought rising winds and waves on Thursday as they searched for hundreds of people believed to be still trapped inside a ferry that sank off South Korea's southern coast a day earlier.

Navy and Coast Guard divers tried to enter the capsized ship more than 10 times, hoping for a response from nearly 300 people, mostly high school students, but were hampered by poor underwater visibility and strong currents.

Officials said diving operations were suspended at around 1 p.m. due to bad weather, but divers and robots went back into the sea at around 8:40 p.m.

As of 10 p.m., 14 out of 475 passengers aboard the 6,325-ton ferry Sewol have been confirmed dead, while 179 others have been rescued. The fate of the remaining 282 remains unknown.

A total of 325 passengers were students from Danwon High School in Ansan, just south of Seoul. They were on a trip to Jeju Island. The 14 dead include five students and two teachers from the school, and two crew members. The identities of the five others were not immediately known.

President Park Geun-hye shakes hands with one of families of those missing in the sinking of a ferry off South Korea's south coast during a visit to an indoor gymnasium near the accident site on April 17, 2014. (Yonhap)

President Park Geun-hye shakes hands with one of families of those missing in the sinking of a ferry off South Korea's south coast during a visit to an indoor gymnasium near the accident site on April 17, 2014. (Yonhap)

Also mobilized to scour the area are 169 boats and 29 aircraft, Kang said. Two salvage cranes are also on their way to the scene to raise the sunken vessel, with one of them expected to arrive on Friday morning and the other in the evening, the minister said.

Earlier in the day, the Navy established a military control tower at the 14,000-ton flat-deck amphibious assault ship Dokdo to support the Coast Guard's search and rescue operations under the commandership of Navy chief Adm. Hwang Ki-chul.

The Navy has dispatched 26 naval ships and three aircraft, as well as 92 divers from Ship Salvage Unit, 274 Navy SEALs and special forces for the rescue mission. On Wednesday night, the Air Force sent six CN-235 transport aircraft to drop 600 rounds of flares to help the nighttime search.

The Navy plans to mobilize its transport aircraft to continue to search the missing in dark using flares, officials said.

The ferry was on its way to the southern resort island of Jeju after from the port of Incheon, west of Seoul, when it sent a distress signal at 8:58 a.m. Wednesday. The circumstance leading to calling for help was not yet known, though survivors said they heard a bang before the vessel started tilting over.

Experts say the vessel could have hit an underwater rock.

The Coast Guard has been questioning the ship's captain and other crew members to determine what went wrong. Coast Guard officials said they found that the ill-fated ship deviated from a government-recommended route.

"(The ferry) took a path slightly different from the route recommended by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries," Koh Myung-seok, a senior Coast Guard official, told a press briefing in Seoul.

Koh, however, said it is premature to conclude that the ferry had deviated based on a track chart.

The ship also made a sharp turn although it is supposed to make a gradual turn, Coast Guard officials said. The loud thud before the sinking could be from cargo shifting from the turn, experts said.

Officials study the map from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) of the sunken ferry Sewol on April 17, 2014, showing the route of the ship before it capsized, leaving at least 10 dead and nearly 300 missing. (Yonhap)

Officials study the map from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) of the sunken ferry Sewol on April 17, 2014, showing the route of the ship before it capsized, leaving at least 10 dead and nearly 300 missing. (Yonhap)

A high-ranking government official revealed that the Sewol slowed down considerably when it was making the turn, likely indicating that the ship had run into an obstacle.

"Before it changed its direction, the ship had been moving along at a normal speed," the official said. "It's hard to tell what exactly happened."

   The map from the ship's Automatic Identification System (AIS) showed that it had been traveling at around 17 to 18 knots before slowing to 5 to 6 knots. It also made an almost 90-degree turn to the right.

Park Jin-soo, a professor at Korea Marine and Ocean University, said it was highly unusual for a vessel to suddenly lose so much speed.

"The ship may have tried to avoid an obstacle by changing direction and slowing down at the same time," Park said. "Based on the AIS data, it doesn't seem as though the obstacle was a rock. It could have been a fishing boat or something that had been floating on the sea. Or the crew could have had difficulties maneuvering the ship."

   The Coast Guard and the Supreme Prosecutors' Office said they have formed a joint investigation team to speed up their probe into the cause of the accident. Officials also said they have assigned to the joint unit a veteran prosecutor who has dealt with previous maritime accidents.

Among the rescued passengers include two Filipinos, a 40-year female surnamed Cabrsa and a 45-year-old male surnamed Manio, said a government official.

The official added that an 18-year-old Russian, only identified by his surname Serkov, is listed as one of the missing passengers. Serkov is a student at Danwon High School, he added.

The official confirmed that two Chinese nationals -- Han Geum-hee, a 37-year-old woman, and Lee Do-nam, a 38-year-old man -- were on board. The two have been confirmed as missing.

Meanwhile, the official said the government is in the process of confirming whether two Chinese nationals were on board as the Coast Guard could not identify them by checking the personal information passengers provided while purchasing tickets.

The government has come under strong fire over its handling of the disaster. It has even been unable to figure out exactly how many people were aboard the ship, and it revised the figure, as well as the numbers of those rescued and missing, many times.

Survivors also blamed the ship's crew, saying they were repeatedly told to stay put where they were, even when the ship began tilting. Had they been told to evacuate earlier, more people would have survived the disaster, they said.

Reports say the ship's captain was one of the first to leave the vessel.

The Coast Guard officials said that they are questioning the 69-year-old captain, surnamed Lee, to investigate safety and rescue conditions aboard the ferry. They said he may have violated seafarers' law by escaping the sinking ferry and leaving passengers behind in danger.

"I am sorry for passengers and family members of the missing," Lee told reporters before entering the Coast Guard office.

Later on Thursday, police said text messages allegedly sent to missing students' family members claiming to be from survivors inside the ferry had been faked.

The Cyber Terror Response Center at the National Police Agency said they had checked cell phone use logs of the missing and concluded that none of them had sent any text or made calls after the ferry sank.

The messages surfaced at around 10 p.m. on Wednesday and quickly spread through Twitter and Facebook, among other forms of social media. The Cyber Terror Response Center said it has asked regional police offices to try to determine who composed the messages.

Police said those behind the texts hurt the families of the missing and caused confusion in the search efforts, and added they will face criminal charges, including for defamation and obstruction of justice by deception.

The ship, which plies between Incheon and Jeju twice a week, was built in Japan in 1994, is 146 meters long and 22 meters wide, and has the maximum capacity of carrying 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers at the same time.

President Park Geun-hye paid a visit to the site, pledging repeatedly that the government will do its best to rescue all of the missing.

"The government won't spare any possible support for the families," Park said during her visit to an indoor gymnasium where families of those missing are gathered. "We will look thoroughly into this unbelievable incident, determine the exact cause and sternly punish those responsible."

   The United States expressed its condolences to the families of those killed.

"We extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones of those who lost their lives on board the South Korea ferry, the Sewol," Marie Harf, the State Department's deputy spokeswoman, said at the start of a daily press briefing.

She described the incident as a "terrible tragedy."

   The United States is ready to provide any assistance needed in the ongoing search-and-rescue efforts, she said.

On Wednesday, the U.S. military send an amphibious assault ship equipped with two helicopters to the scene to help with the search and rescue operations. The ship was on its routine patrol mission in the western sea.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also expressed condolences and sympathy for the victims.

khj@yna.co.kr

(END)

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