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(2nd LD) Bad weather stymies search for missing in sunken ferry

2014/04/28 15:12

JINDO, South Korea, April 28 (Yonhap) -- Strong winds, high waves and rain effectively halted search operations Monday for more than 100 passengers still missing from a deadly ferry disaster two weeks ago.

Only one body was retrieved in the on-and-off search operations over the weekend, and adverse weather conditions thwarted overnight attempts to resume search efforts, leaving the death toll unchanged at 188 and the number of the missing at 114.

Of the 476 passengers aboard the 6,825-ton ship Sewol that capsized in waters off South Korea's southwestern island of Jindo on April 16, 174 people, including most of the crew members, were rescued on the day of the accident, but no one has been found alive since.

With rain falling on the shipwreck site, Coast Guard, Navy and civilian divers were unable to restart their search efforts on Monday due to high waves of up to 2 meters, strong winds of up to 13 meters per second and strong underwater currents.

Rescue workers fight high waves and strong winds in a desperate attempt to resume underwater operations to search for more than 100 missing passengers in waters off South Korea's southwestern island of Jindo on April 28, 2014, after the ferry Sewol sank on April 16. So far, 188 have been confirmed dead and 114 remain missing. (Yonhap)

Rescue workers fight high waves and strong winds in a desperate attempt to resume underwater operations to search for more than 100 missing passengers in waters off South Korea's southwestern island of Jindo on April 28, 2014, after the ferry Sewol sank on April 16. So far, 188 have been confirmed dead and 114 remain missing. (Yonhap)

A high sea watch posted for the area since late Sunday was lifted earlier in the day, but strong currents even prompted small fishing boats participating in the search operations to evacuate.

"Some 92 divers are ready to resume the job, but operations underwater are not possible as of now," a Coast Guard officer said.

"The tide is forecast to be calm for about two hours later in the day. During that time, the workers will focus on searching the fourth floor of the five-story vessel."

   So far, the divers have searched 35 out of the 111 compartments on the sunken ship, but loads inside the rooms hampered their attempt to get inside, according to the authorities.

In a desperate attempt to open the door of the compartments to enter inside, rescue workers had mulled employing small explosives, along with wire cutters, but chances are slim to implement the plan as some families of the missing passengers are opposed to the method.

With regard to the option of salvaging the hull, the government also took a cautious stance.

"Though we've been prepared to salvage the capsized boat, we've yet to decide whether and when to pull up the hull," an official of the pan-government response team said, stressing it will proceed according to what the families want.

"After wrapping up search operations, we will devise a detailed plan for salvage in discussions with the families," he added.

Amid growing concerns that the bodies of possible victims are feared to be swept away by the strong currents, the response team stepped up offshore patrols, while planning to mobilize locating-tracing buoys.

This week will see spring tides when the tide's range is at its maximum, and at least 45 bodies so far were recovered outside the sunken ferry, not inside, according to the government.

"Apart from the ongoing efforts including casting nets surrounding the site and operations by trawlers, we are considering diverse measures to prevent bodies from being lost," the official said. "We also asked for cooperation from Japan and China."

  

The sunken ferry Sewol's captain, Lee Jun-seok, wearing just his underwear, gets off his sinking boat, leaving hundreds of passengers behind on April 16, 2014. The tragedy killed 188 people and left 144 others unaccounted for as of April 28, 2014. (Yonhap)

The sunken ferry Sewol's captain, Lee Jun-seok, wearing just his underwear, gets off his sinking boat, leaving hundreds of passengers behind on April 16, 2014. The tragedy killed 188 people and left 144 others unaccounted for as of April 28, 2014. (Yonhap)

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, unveiled Monday a video clip showing the Sewol's captain, along with seven other crew members, escaping from the sinking boat, leaving hundreds of passengers behind.

According to the 10-minute cell phone video by a Coast Guard officer, captain Lee Jun-seok and the seamen hurriedly got off the listed ship and on a rescue boat that arrived at the scene for the first time at around 9:35 a.m., some 40 minutes after the Sewol sent a distress call.

They gathered together in a steering room and were the first to be saved from the ill-fated ferry, while none of them made an attempt to operate lifeboats attached to the ship. None of those rescued wore their uniform in violation of maritime law, with Lee wearing only his underwear, the video showed.

Few passengers were on the deck of the sinking ferry at that time. Investigators and survivors said the announcement from the vessel urged the people to stay put inside, depriving them of their chance to be rescued.

All 15 crewmen in charge of driving the ship survived the disaster. Of the other 14 crew members, including part-time workers and foreign singers, only five were rescued.

The Coast Guard officers who arrived at the scene first said they urged the passengers from outside to jump off the boat into the sea.

"When we were there, the Sewol was already listed too much, and we couldn't enter inside. We instead used loudspeakers to tell the people to jump into the sea right away," said Kim Kyung-il, who was in charge of the rescue boat.

Noting that he had not communicated directly with any of the Sewol's sailors on its way to the accident site, the rescue operators "were not able to distinguish crew members in plain clothes from passengers at the time of urgency," Kim added.

As part of the ongoing extensive probe into what caused the deadly disaster, the joint investigation team raided the Coast Guard office in Mokpo, a southwestern port city near the accident site, to look into whether the officers properly handled the disaster at the initial stage.

In a separate probe into the owner family of the Sewol's operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., prosecutors in the western port city of Incheon, stormed into its affiliate companies and the residences of Yoo Byung-eun's second son and his close aide.

The Yoo family is suspected of establishing three paper companies to create slush funds and illegally transfer money abroad by embezzling corporate funds while failing to fulfill the duty of properly managing the companies.

Prosecutors said they have also traced their hidden assets to pay damages to the victims and their families.

graceoh@yna.co.kr

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