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(3rd LD) Rescuers renew search for hundreds missing in ferry disaster

2014/04/18 11:44

JINDO/SEOUL, South Korea, April 18 (Yonhap) -- Braving rain, high waves and strong winds, rescuers resumed their desperate search Friday for hundreds of people still missing in the sinking of a passenger ship off the southwestern coast of South Korea.

The death toll rose to 26 as of 11:30 a.m., as more bodies were found floating in the site overnight. Of 475 passengers, 179 have been rescued, with 270 others, mostly high-school students, remaining unaccounted for.

More than 48 hours have passed since the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol capsized in waters off the country's southwestern island of Jindo. It was en route for the southern resort island of Jeju from the western port of Incheon.

Search-and-rescue operations are under way off South Korea's southwestern coast on April 17, 2014 to find those missing in the sinking of the ferry Sewol two days ago. (Yonhap)

Search-and-rescue operations are under way off South Korea's southwestern coast on April 17, 2014 to find those missing in the sinking of the ferry Sewol two days ago. (Yonhap)

Hundreds of divers continued their attempts to gain access to inside the submerged ship, with some entering it and beginning to search for any survivors.

They also began injecting oxygen inside the ship both to have the ship floated and to help potential survivors trapped inside breathe, according to officials.

Experts say that people could survive for 72 hours if there are "air pockets" in compartments.

Diverse diving options have also been employed both by private and military divers to get inside the ship. Unmanned robots were also waiting to be dispatched underwater to find survivors, they added.

"We are planning to relay divers on standby for underwater search operations," a military officer said. "We've ordered the service members to carry out the job up to the limit."

   Three salvage cranes, including a 3,200-ton one, arrived at the scene earlier in the day, either to move the hull, at a depth of about 35 meters, to some other place where the tidal current is weak or to salvage it.

"But we will review the options very carefully, as the salvage operations may hurt survivors trapped inside," a Coast Guard officer said. "We are also considering using a floating dock to set the ship afloat."

   The ship was on the verge of going completely underwater, further lowering the possibility that any survivors could be found.

With full investigations into surviving crewmen underway to find the exact cause of the tragedy, the joint police and prosecution team said Sewol's captain was not at the steering room at the time of the accident.

"The captain had a third mate be in charge of steering the vessel at the time of the accident," said Park Jae-uk, chief investigator of the joint team, announcing their interim probe result. He cited a 26-year-old mate with one year of experience.

"Though surviving crews have different testimonies about the situation, we've been investigating the captain as he was suspected to leave the steering room for an unknown reason," he added.

Police and prosecutors are also looking into claims that Sewol's 69-year-old captain Lee Jun-seok was among the first to leave the vessel in violation of seafarers' law.

Public uproar has erupted against Lee for his alleged poor management of the emergency situation before the boat's sinking. He is suspected of instructing passengers to remain seated even as the boat was listing leftward fast, stripping them of any chance to escape.

A sudden shift in cargo may also be attributable to the deadly outcome, according to the investigators.

"We've seen no problem where the ship turned the course. But we are now investigating if it was normal steering or an emergency one," Park said.

Experts and investigators have said about possibility of a sudden shift in cargo, which caused 180 vehicles and 1,157 tons of freight on board to slide to one side, disrupting the balance of the ship.

It is feared to be the nation's biggest ferry disaster since 1993, when a vessel capsized off its west coast, killing 292 people.

The ship, which travels between Incheon and Jeju twice a week, was built in Japan in 1994. The 20-year-old vessel is 146 meters long and 22 meters wide and has a maximum capacity of 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers at the same time.

A Buddhist monk prays for the safe return of those who remain missing in a sunken ferry in Jindo, South Korea, on April 18, 2014. (Yonhap)

A Buddhist monk prays for the safe return of those who remain missing in a sunken ferry in Jindo, South Korea, on April 18, 2014. (Yonhap)

Earlier in the day, families of those missing announced a public statement denouncing the government's poor response and calling for help.

"Nobody told us about what went wrong and what was happening out there. There was not even a situation room in charge by late Wednesday," a representative of the families said in the appeal.

Claiming that the authorities "told lies that they mobilized 555 divers along with 69 vessels and 121 helicopters for rescue operations while fewer than 200 people and two military ships were there," they said the government even refrained them from approaching the vessel.

"Our children would be shouting for help in the freezing water," he said in tears. "Please help us save our children."

   Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, meanwhile, has decided to stay in the Coast Guard office in the southern coastal city of Mokpo near the accident scene to coordinate rescue operations and necessary support measures for victims and their families, according to his office.

graceoh@yna.co.kr

(END)

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