(4th LD) All-out efforts underway to rescue hundreds missing in ferry disaster
JINDO/SEOUL, South Korea, April 18 (Yonhap) -- Search-and-rescue operations gathered pace Friday for hundreds still missing in the sinking of a ferry off the southwestern coast of South Korea, with divers successfully entering the hull amid improved weather conditions.
Hundreds of military and police officers along with private divers launched all-out efforts to gain access to inside the submerged ship named Sewol to find 268 passengers still unaccounted for.
A total of 475 passengers, including 325 high schoolers on a field trip, were aboard the 6,825-ton ferry when it capsized in waters off the southwestern island of Jindo on a foggy Wednesday morning. It was en route for the southern resort island of Jeju from the western port of Incheon.
As of 2 p.m., 28 had been confirmed dead, while 179 had been rescued.
Rescue ships and cranes are ready for search-and-rescue operations in waters off South Korea's southwestern town of Jindo on April 18, 2014, to find hundreds of missing passengers in the ferry Sewol that sank two days earlier. The ferry Sewol disappeared completely from sight at around noon. (Yonhap)
Struggling against strong underwater currents and low visibility, the divers have been scurrying inside the submerged ship after successfully securing a path inside, according to the Coast Guard officials.
Little progress was made as rain, high waves and strong winds effectively hampered their desperate rescue attempts for the past two days.
They also began injecting oxygen into the ship to have the ship floated and to help potential survivors trapped inside breathe, the officials said, adding unmanned robots are also available to be dispatched underwater to find survivors.
Experts say that people can survive for 72 hours if there are "air pockets" in compartments.
Despite diverse options, however, the capsized ship went underwater completely around noon, further lowering the possibility that any survivors can be found.
Three salvage cranes, including a 3,200-ton one, also arrived at the scene earlier in the day, with more to come, 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 are reviewing 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."
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)
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 of leaving 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 abandoned the ship in violation of seafarers' law and was among the first to leave the vessel.
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.
After a further probe, the investigation team plans to seek an arrest warrant for Lee within the day, according to officers.
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.
Families of those missing, meanwhile, announced a public statement earlier in the day 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 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.
Of those rescued, 100, including 69 high schoolers, have been receiving treatment at hospitals. Six of them sustained serious injuries, and many of the survivors have suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.
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.
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