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(7th LD) Rescue for hundreds missing in ferry disaster continues through night

2014/04/18 23:37

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead, photos; UPDATES with more information in 2-9, 21-24 paras)

JINDO/SEOUL, South Korea, April 18 (Yonhap) -- Rescue workers stepped up their search Friday for nearly 300 people still missing in the deadly sinking of a ferry off the southwestern coast of South Korea, but their efforts were hampered by high winds and tumultuous waves as they tried to reach the vessel.

Using floodlights and flares, hundreds of coast guard and military officers, along with civilian divers, struggled to gain access to the submerged ship to search for 274 passengers who are still unaccounted for.

The Coast Guard said divers temporarily halted pumping air into the hull of the submerged ship and will resume the operation early Saturday morning.

A total of 476 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 to the southern resort island of Jeju from the western port of Incheon.

As of 11 p.m. Friday, 28 passengers had been confirmed dead. While 174 have been rescued, no one has been found alive since around Wednesday noon when the ship capsized.

The government had earlier announced that 475 were on aboard and that 179 were rescued, but officials later acknowledged there was an error in tallying up figures.

Search-and-rescue operations are under way in waters off South Korea's southwestern town of Jindo on April 18, 2014, to search for hundreds of missing passengers in the ferry Sewol that sank two days earlier. (Yonhap)

Search-and-rescue operations are under way in waters off South Korea's southwestern town of Jindo on April 18, 2014, to search for hundreds of missing passengers in the ferry Sewol that sank two days earlier. (Yonhap)

Battling strong underwater currents and low visibility, a group of veteran divers had earlier attempted to enter the submerged hull after they secured a path inside, according to the Coast Guard.

The 21 divers attempted to enter the cabin on the second deck of the five-level vessel where most of the passengers are believed to be trapped, Coast Guard officials said.

The group, however, came out of the water roughly 14 minutes after their attempt amid fears for the safety of the divers, they said.

Earlier in the day, the divers approached the cargo compartment on the second deck and pumped oxygen inside in an effort to get the ship to float and help potential survivors breathe.

But the guide line helping rescue workers move inside snapped, while cargo prevented them from going into the compartment.

Experts say that people could possibly survive for up to 72 hours if there are air pockets in the compartments.

At around noon, the capsized ship disappeared completely from sight, stoking fears that the ship went under which would make it difficult for rescue workers to have access to the hull.

To keep it afloat, military divers attached an air-filled bag to the ship and is planning to attach 25 more 35-ton ones, according to the authorities.

Four salvage cranes, including a 3,200-ton machine, also arrived at the scene earlier in the day, either to move the hull, currently at a depth of about 35 meters, to a place where the currents are weaker or to salvage the vessel.

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

With questioning of the surviving crew under way to find the exact cause of the tragedy, a joint police and prosecution team said that it has sought an arrest warrant for Sewol's captain Lee Jun-seok on charges of abandoning ship in violation of seafarers' law.

The investigation team alleged that the 69-year-old captain had failed to carry out his duty of taking care of passengers by leaving the vessel first.

A 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, denying them a chance to escape.

Arrest warrants were also sought against two crew members, including a 26-year-old third mate with one year of experience, for the same charge, officers said.

The crew member, only identified by her surname Park, was allegedly in charge of steering the vessel at the time of the accident, they said.

"Lee is under suspicion of making a sharp turn while sailing the ship through a narrow route and eventually sinking the Sewol," said Lee Bong-chang, a senior prosecutor of Gwangju District Prosecutors' Office.

The captain was not present when the ship was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together, prosecutors said, adding that the law requires the captain to be present to help a mate make a turn.

"Charges against Lee include not making efforts to safely evacuate passengers and eventually causing their death," Lee added.

The captain may face up to life in prison if found guilty.

A district court is scheduled to hold a hearing within 48 hours to decide whether to issue the warrants for the three.

As to the cause of the tragedy, a sudden shift in cargo may have contributed to the deadly outcome, according to the investigators.

"We've seen no problems where the ship changed course. But we are now investigating if it was a normal turn or an emergency one," said Park Jae-uk, chief investigator of the joint team, announcing their interim probe results earlier in the day.

Experts and investigators have raised the possibility of a sudden shift in 180 vehicles and 1,157 tons of freight on board disrupting the balance of the ship.

Police also vowed stern punishment of those who spread false information on the developments in the rescue efforts and whoever masterminded phone-based financial frauds that deceived people into thinking they were receiving the latest information on the rescue.

Meanwhile, the vice principal of the school, who was in charge of the hundreds of high school students and survived the disaster, was found dead in an apparent suicide.

The senior teacher from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul, identified by his surname Kang, 52, was found hanging from a tree on a hill near an indoor gymnasium on the island of Jindo, where parents of the students missing from the sunken ferry are staying.

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 suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.

Earlier on Friday, families of those missing made a public statement denouncing the government's response and calling for additional help.

The office of Prime Minister Chung Hong-won said he will stay at 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.

The sinking 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.

Pupils of Daewon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul, express their grief on April 18 2014 for the loss of fellow students in the ferry Sewol that sank two days earlier. (Yonhap)

Pupils of Daewon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul, express their grief on April 18 2014 for the loss of fellow students in the ferry Sewol that sank two days earlier. (Yonhap)

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