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(LEAD) S. Korea readies 'diving bell' for search of sunken ferry

2014/04/30 15:10

JINDO, South Korea, April 30 (Yonhap) -- A specially designed airtight steel chamber, called a diving bell, was ready to be used Wednesday to help the ongoing search for more than 90 people believed to be trapped inside a ferry that sank 15 days ago, officials said.

The 6,825-ton ferry, the Sewol, capsized and sank off this southwestern island on April 16. With most of its hull lying on the muddy sea bed, divers have had difficulty reaching it.

A specially designed airtight steel chamber, called a diving bell, is ready to be used on April 30, 2014, in waters near Jindo Island to help the ongoing search for the bodies of more than 90 people believed to be trapped inside a ferry that sank on April 16. (Yonhap)

A specially designed airtight steel chamber, called a diving bell, is ready to be used on April 30, 2014, in waters near Jindo Island to help the ongoing search for the bodies of more than 90 people believed to be trapped inside a ferry that sank on April 16. (Yonhap)

The diving bell has been recommended as a new tool to carry divers deeper and help them stay longer underwater to search parts of the ship that have not been scoured, officials said.

The government disaster task force team continued the search for the 15th day in southwestern waters near Jindo Island as divers braved strong wind and high tides to search cabins of the Sewol. Debris and poor visibility have also kept divers from reaching bodies trapped inside the ship.

As five more bodies were retrieved from the fourth and fifth floors of the ferry overnight, the number of confirmed deaths rose to 210, with 92 people still unaccounted for.

Rescue workers have set up guideline ropes near the fourth floor of the ferry's stern and put a barge in place to operate the diving bell when the tide goes down, the Korea Coast Guard said.

The diving bell, which is designed to submerge up to 40 meters to create an air-filled space for divers to rest and resupply, has caused controversy between civilian divers and authorities over its efficiency for rescue operations.

Coast Guard officials said anchoring the barge that operates the diving bell is extremely difficult due to the strong currents and there is a high risk that the anchoring chains could become tangled with others from rescue boats nearby.

With rising pressure from relatives of the missing passengers to use all possible means to retrieve the bodies, the Coast Guard tried to mobilize the device over the weekend, but bad weather prevented the barge from anchoring close to the submerged ship.

The U.S. Navy recovery vessel USNS Safeguard, which is capable of conducting salvage, diving, towing, and heavy-lift operations, has also been operating near the disaster site to support the divers.

"Rescue workers will focus on their search into the front and central parts of the fourth deck and the fifth deck's lobby," the response team's spokesman Ko Myung-seok said in a briefing. "Divers will first search cabins that are open, and continue to search closed sections and common areas by early May."

   As the grim search for bodies continued, President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday apologized for her government's mishandling of the accident and the failed initial response that has left hundreds of people dead.

But many of the victims' families didn't accept her apology, which was made during a closed meeting of her Cabinet members. In a joint statement, they demanded the government to promptly determine the cause of the ship's sinking and step up rescue efforts.

On Wednesday, the government emergency team addressed the concerns of the grieving families, saying it will soon provide detailed information on their search and rescue operations.

No one has been found alive since the ferry carrying 476 passengers sank. So far, 174 people, including the captain and most of the crew, were rescued shortly after the accident.

The disaster response team said it will continue the operation until May 15, while placing large cranes near the scene to lift the ship upon approval from families of the victims.

Prospects of finding the missing appeared bleak for the time being, however, as spring tides brought strong currents.

Spring tides refer to tides in which the difference between high and low tide is the greatest. Currents are stronger by about 40 percent during spring tides compared with a period of neap tides when the difference is the least.

The spring tides are expected to last until Friday, officials said.

Weather in the area was forecast to be cloudy. Waves were expected to reach between 0.5 and 1 meter, with wind blowing at a speed of 6 to 11 meters per second.

ejkim@yna.co.kr

(END)

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