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(3rd LD) All-out efforts to search sunken ferry continue amid weak currents

2014/05/07 21:55

JINDO, South Korea, May 7 (Yonhap) -- Rescue workers continued their search Wednesday for 33 people still missing in the sinking of a ferry 22 days ago, amid favorable weather conditions and slow tidal currents.

The 6,825-ton ferry, the Sewol, plying between Incheon, west of Seoul, and the southern resort island of Jeju, sank in waters off South Korea's southwestern island of Jindo on April 16. Of the 476 people on board, 269 have been confirmed dead, with 172 others rescued on the day of the accident.

The Coast Guard revised down the number of survivors from 174 to 172, saying two people were incorrectly reported as survivors by their fellow passengers even though they did not travel aboard the ship.

It also corrected the number of missing from 33 to 35 without offering an explanation. Kim Suk-kyoon, chief of the Coast Guard, said during a press briefing that two Chinese nationals were added to the list after examining credit card records. But the Coast Guard later retracted the announcement in hours as the two were confirmed to be ethnic-Korean Chinese couple Lee Do-nam and Han Geum-hee whose bodies had been already retrieved.

Coast Guard, Navy and civilian divers worked in shifts to open all of the 64 passenger cabins where the missing are thought to be trapped, officials said, adding that they plan to wrap up the search into other convenience facilities comprised of singing rooms, a dining hall and lounge by Saturday.

The Herculean task of retrieving bodies repeatedly halted and resumed overnight as tidal currents became faster than forecast, but divers entered the sunken vessel in the morning as waters slowed down.

The currents are forecast to slow down for four days through Saturday. Waves in the area were expected to reach 0.5 meter, with wind blowing at a speed of 6 to 9 meters per second.

During the press briefing to announce interim results of the search operation, Kim said about 90 percent of the dead were wearing life jackets.

"Of the 269 victims whose bodies were discovered in the first round of the search, 235 were wearing life jackets," Kim said.

The finding is likely to raise further questions about whether more passengers could have been rescued if the crew members and the government had moved more swiftly to save them.

Kim said the authorities will comb all the remaining spaces excluded from the initial search, such as restrooms, shower rooms and bedrooms of some crew members, after re-searching all 64 cabins until Saturday. The previously unsearched areas had been deemed unlikely to contain any passengers.

About 20 civilian divers will be additionally added to the operation, he added.

"Finishing the first-round search does not mean any suspension of the search operation. We'll go into the second round immediately after finishing the first round," Kim said.

Kim Suk-kyoon, chief of the Coast Guard, speaks during a press briefing at the Jindo County Office, South Jeolla Province, on May 7, 2014. (Yonhap)

Kim Suk-kyoon, chief of the Coast Guard, speaks during a press briefing at the Jindo County Office, South Jeolla Province, on May 7, 2014. (Yonhap)

Authorities said they have dispatched military doctors near the sinking site, a day after the death of a civilian diver during the search operation.

On Tuesday, a 53-year-old civilian worker named Lee Kwang-wook fell unconscious shortly after diving into waters around 25 meters deep. The veteran diver from Undine Marine Industries was pronounced dead after being transferred to a nearby hospital.

"One naval surgeon, one military doctor, and two emergency medical technicians were deployed to a ship near waters off the sinking site," Park Seung-kee, a spokesman for the government emergency response team, told a press briefing. "We are still reviewing whether to deploy more civilian doctors."

   The team has also asked fishermen to search the waters near the sinking site amid fears that bodies and belongings of the passengers could be swept away from the sunken vessel.

Despite installing stow nets and having tow-boats trawl closer to the site, authorities have retrieved life vests and what appeared to be some of the victims' personal belongings on Jindo's shoreline.

khj@yna.co.kr

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