April 18 (Bloomberg) -- Rescuers say there’s still a “slim” chance of finding survivors from a ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea two days ago, as the vessel’s bow slowly disappeared from view.
More than 600 divers have been hampered in their attempts to enter the sunken vessel due to strong currents and bad visibility. They were finally able to enter the ferry to begin clearing the passage to the dining facility earlier, where survivors say many passengers were at the time of the sinking, the security ministry said. Three floating cranes have also arrived at the site.
“Pulling the ferry up isn’t going to be easy or smooth,” Kim Jae In, a press officer at the Korea Coast Guard said in Mokpo. “It’s completely upside down so if we move it wrong, it may tilt or sink further into the mud. This is something we cannot afford as lifesaving is our top priority, although we’re holding onto a slim chance.”
Of the 475 people on board, 28 are known to have died and 179 rescued, leaving 268 people unaccounted for. There have been no survivors found since the day of the sinking, which occurred off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula.
Bodies found overnight and today all had life jackets on and weren’t discovered inside the ferry. They may have been trapped under the vessel, the coast guard said.
“Divers are groping their way because visibility is so poor, 20-30 centimeters at best,” coast guard official Ko Myung Suk told reporters.
The number of divers conducting operations increases every six hours as the current off Korea’s southwest coast slows, according to notice boards at the situation room at Jindo county office. Each slowdown lasts about an hour.
Authorities are considering using an oil tanker to attempt to slow down the current. Rescuers also planned to pump air into the ferry from 10 a.m. to “increase the odds of survival,” the security ministry said in a statement.
In addition to the coast guard, 400 personnel from South Korea’s navy, air force and army have been sent to the area to aid the search and rescue. Altogether, 632 divers are working in turns, with 173 ships and 29 helicopters and other aircraft supporting, the security ministry said.
Captain Lee Joon Seok, 69, wasn’t at the helm at the time of the sinking as he had assigned a third-ranking officer to steer the vessel, South Korean prosecutors said at a briefing in Mokpo. Investigators are probing whether the ferry turned too quickly or abnormally. They declined to say what announcements were made as the ferry sank, or whether passengers were told to stay in their cabins.
Investigating the Captain
About 10 crew including the ferry’s captain are under investigation over the cause of the ferry’s sinking, Kim Su Hyeon, Commissioner of the Korea Coast Guard’s West Regional Headquarters in Mokpo, said in a statement distributed by the security ministry. The probe will focus on whether the crew made any mistakes, if they broke any rules related to cargo, and if the ship had any faults, according to the statement.
The coast guard is checking if lifeboats on the ferry were functional and whether the captain gave an order for passengers to remain in their cabin as the ferry began to sink, a coast guard official investigating the incident said, asking not to be named citing official policy.
The ferry, owned and operated by privately-held Chonghaejin Marine Co., listed and capsized in an area of the ocean as shallow as 20 meters (66 feet) in some parts, based on readings from a coast guard vessel used in the rescue operation. The ferry was en route from Incheon to Jeju island, popular with tourists and honeymooners.
Kim Han Shik, the 72-year-old chief executive officer of Chonghaejin Marine, said his company has committed a “terrible sin.” Kim was speaking at a press briefing at Incheon port late yesterday that was broadcast on MBN TV.
The passengers included 325 students and 14 teachers from Danwon High School on an excursion to Jeju island, according to the school’s website. The school was closed yesterday and is scheduled to be closed today, while hundreds of parents whose children remain unaccounted for are packed into a gymnasium on Jindo island, near the site of the sinking.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye was met with angry shouts, shrieks and wailing when she visited them yesterday.
“We will make every effort to rescue up to the last person,” Park said as she stood on the gymnasium stage, flanked by officials at a meeting shown on YTN TV. Some people yelled insults, while others demanded a live broadcast of rescue operations, a full list of people who were on board, and an increase in the number of divers assigned to the search.
“I will order my officials to fulfill what you asked for, or else the officials standing here will have to take responsibility and resign,” said Park, who returned to Seoul yesterday.
The government has enabled live footage of the rescue process for families in Jindo, while the police are taking steps to prevent rumors spreading through social media sites, the security ministry said in a statement, amid Korean media reports that hoax messages purporting to be from people trapped on the ferry have been posted on the Internet.
The accident may be Korea’s worst since 1970, when the sinking of the ‘Namyoung’ ferry killed 323 people, according to the General Insurance Association of Korea. The ‘Seohae’ ferry sank in 1993, killing 292, according to the Korea Maritime University.
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