Dozens of speedboats encircled the upside-down blue bow of the Sewol, the only remaining visible piece of the South Korean ferry that sank April 16. They each carried several rescue workers.
But only a handful of divers were actually in the water as the waves, rain and fog intensified yesterday, a sign of the difficulty in reaching hundreds of people who may still be trapped. From the pilothouse of the Mokpo Coast Guard 123, a vessel aiding the effort, a radar screen was packed with blurry green dots, showing how many boats were deployed in the search.
“You just can’t see much underwater in weather like this where there’s no sunlight, especially considering that the water in this area already isn’t very transparent,” said Kim Kyung Il, captain of the ship, as he gazed at the sea. “Adding to that is the chilly water. It’s generally very hard for anyone to last between one and three hours in water as cold as it is.”
More than 100 vessels, from naval corvettes to fishing boats, and 600 divers haven’t brought a living person from the ferry since the day the ship sank. Twenty five people are known to have died and 271 are listed as missing among the 475 on board. More than 300 of the passengers were students and teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, near Seoul, headed to the resort island of Jeju.
As Captain Kim spoke, a voice came out of the on-board speakers: “A body is being retrieved at the moment,” it said.
A double-decker vessel carrying dozens of family members of those missing circled around the sunken ferry, watching the operations. Many people appeared to be crying, some of them covering their mouths with their hands.
Hundreds of other parents waited in a gymnasium at a sports complex on Jindo island, a land point near the site of the sinking. Many sat on the wooden floor, wrapped in blankets, or lay on stretchers. Some were attended to by medical personnel; ramen noodles and coffee were served on tables in the hallway. Just outside the entrance, a television had been installed to broadcast news of the rescue effort.
“There is still hope,” said Park Young Woo, who believes his daughter remains trapped in the ferry. He was at the port at Jindo, about 20 minutes’ drive from the gym. Dozens of parents also stood on the docks, gazing across the water.
“Divers, please hurry, hurry,” Park said. “Don’t rest. Don’t stop. Rotate if you’re tired. Please do your best. All our children would already be home by now if you had done your best.”
His wife, who declined to give her name or her daughter’s name, showed a video on her phone of the girl laughing while hula-hooping in a dairy cow costume. Smiling as she watched, the mother paused for a moment and pulled back her phone, worrying her daughter might feel embarrassed to know the footage was being shown to others. Like the other students, she is in her second-to-last year at Danwon.
Anger erupted at times in the gym. When one father heard that President Park Geun Hye was coming, he said Park was “just like any other politician trying to put on a political show.” He declined to give his name, saying he feared reprisals from the government. He said he no longer trusted the authorities because he suspected the government wasn’t serious about the rescue.
Park, for her part, vowed maximum effort and stiff penalties for those responsible for the sinking, placing the palm of her hand over her ear at one point to listen to a family member amid the angry outcries. She had an aide take the phone number of one parent who wanted an update from her every day, saying, “Yes, I will check.”
Prime Minister Chung Hong Won was hit in the head with a water bottle thrown by an angry parent as he left the building after a visit the previous day. Other parents pushed him and threw water on him.
The weather worsened throughout yesterday and by late afternoon was so foggy that an island a few hundred meters from the port at Jindo could only be seen in outline. Volunteers distributed blue, white, yellow and pink raincoats, one of the few spots of color at the scene.
Rescuers Wednesday had more success. Kim Young Min, a 50-year-old fisherman, got on his boat and started its engine as soon as he received a text message from a neighbor saying a ferry was sinking just off his island of Daemado. As far as he could see, two other boats joined him.
By the time he and his fellow fishermen arrived at the scene, the ferry was listing “90 degrees,” Kim said yesterday by phone. “As soon as I saw the ship and the passengers scrambling out, all I could think was, ‘This isn’t right.’ My friends and I started picking up anyone we could spot. It was too frantic for me to count how many we pulled out of the water. All I remember was, everyone I pulled out was a kid.”
Kim regretted he couldn’t save more, including those whom he later learned were trapped inside the boat. The waters off Korea’s southwestern coast are as cold as 11 degrees Celsius (52 degrees Fahrenheit).
“I feel terrible I was only able to save those lucky enough to make it to the deck,” he said. “What about the kids who didn’t make it? What did they do wrong not to deserve to be rescued?”
Kim was pessimistic about the search yesterday. “I can’t help fearing they are either already dead inside or have drifted away,” he said.
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