Park Visits Ferry Accident Site With 287 Still Missing
South Korean President Park Geun Hye was met with angry shouts, shrieks and wailing from the relatives of hundreds of missing students when she visited a site near where a ferry sank yesterday.
“We will make every effort to rescue up to the last person,” Park said as she stood on a 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 the ferry, 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,” Park said.
Waves and wind hampered today’s search for 287 missing people, with nobody rescued. A total of 179 people were rescued yesterday. Over 100 ships and more than 500 divers have been searching for passengers who might still be alive in air pockets, the government said.
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.
YTN showed footage of the captain with his head bowed and face hidden by a grey hooded sweatshirt as he declined to answer questions from reporters about why he left the sinking ferry when passengers were still on board. The captain, whose surname is Lee, will face further questioning, the coast guard official said.
The accident may be Korea’s worst since 1970, when the sinking of the ‘Namyoung’ ferry killed 323 people. At least nine people, including three students, died in yesterday’s incident, which occurred off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula.
The ferry 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 weather there is too bad for a search,” You Young, director of the Marine Pollution Prevention Division at the Korea Coast Guard, told reporters in Seoul. “We have been trying to search the body of the ship but little progress.”
Many passengers may have been unable to escape as the ship turned over and sank too fast, Ko Myung Suk, director general of Equipment & Technology Bureau at Korea Coast Guard, told reporters in Seoul.
“I felt something seriously went wrong when I noticed the ship was listing as sharply as 45 degrees at around 9 a.m,” Yang In Seok, a 48-year-old who was transporting cargo to Jeju together with three fellow delivery men, said, his neck wrapped in a cast. “I bolted from the third floor of the stern, bumping against the wall, and then made it up to the deck to find a helicopter pulling us up.”
Coast guard officials were unclear as to whether the ferry deviated from its scheduled or government-recommended route. The accident happened off the ferry’s scheduled route, according to a member of Korea Coast Guard’s investigation team at the ship’s departure port of Incheon, who declined to give his name or further details when reached by phone today.
The ferry appears to have sailed on the route approved by the coast guard, while there’s no such concept as a route recommended by the government, Korea Coast Guard’s Kim said in the statement.
“I stress again and again that families, who are in the most difficult position, must be informed of every detail,” President Park said at the meeting with parents and relatives. “It’s a matter of trust.”
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 is closed today and tomorrow, while hundreds of parents whose children remain unaccounted for are packed into the gymnasium on Jindo island, near the site of the sinking. Some scuffled and threw water at Prime Minister Chung Hong Won, who was surrounded by aides when he arrived last night.
The 6,325-ton ferry is submerged with only its bow visible. The site, 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) off the coast of Byeongpoong island, was filled with coast guard and navy vessels, with helicopters and an air force surveillance plane overhead. An orange fence normally used to contain oil spills has been deployed to prevent anything rising from the ferry from drifting away.
The ship left from the port of Incheon late on April 15 on a trip that generally takes almost 14 hours. It sank about 3 hours from Jeju.
The coast guard received the accident alert from the ferry at 8:58 a.m. local time yesterday, the ministry said. The ship first listed, with rescuers lowered from helicopters rushing to pull survivors from one side of the ship. As the vessel began to sink, passengers were told to jump into the water, survivors said, and within three hours the ferry had sunk with just a bit of the bow remaining above water.
“The ship quickly tilted to 90 degrees,” the mother of An Min Soo, a student who survived the accident by jumping into the sea with a teacher and friends, said by phone. “He was in the water for five minutes and was transported to a lifeboat. He said there were announcements but he couldn’t hear them because the scene was too chaotic with noise.”
Confusion surrounded official statements about the incident. The government at one point said 368 were rescued, while the ship’s owner and operator Chonghaejin Marine Co. said 90 passengers were unaccounted for. Many of the mistakes were caused by double-counting, vice security minister Lee Gyeong Og said at a televised press briefing. The total number of people on the ferry was also revised repeatedly.
The nine confirmed casualties included high school student Jeong Cha Woong, according to the security ministry. Another was Park Ji Young, a female employee of the boat operator, South Korea’s disaster control agency said. Two other students also died, the security ministry said. At least three foreigners are among the missing.
The vessel, named “Sewol,” or “time and tide” in Korean, can carry as many as 921 passengers and 130 vehicles traveling between Incheon and Jeju Island. Chonghaejin Marine operates two vessels on the Incheon-Jeju route as well as two other services in the southern coastal area, according to the company’s website.
The Sewol is insured by Meritz Fire & Marine Insurance Co. for up to 7.8 billion won ($7.5 million) and by Korea Shipping Association for up to 3.6 billion won, South Korea’s Financial Services Commission and Financial Supervisory Service said in an e-mailed joint statement. Korea Shipping Association and Meritz Fire are reinsured by Korean Reinsurance Co. and Samsung Fire & Marine Insurance Co., according to the statement.
It’s the second accident in less than a month involving a Chonghaejin ferry, after its “Democracy No. 5” collided with a fishing boat near Incheon late last month, with no casualties, according to a company official who asked not to be named, citing company policy.
The chances of finding more survivors are diminishing due to the cold ocean temperature in the area, about 13.2 degrees Celsius (56 degrees Fahrenheit), according to South Korea’s National Fisheries Research & Development Institute. That would probably lead to exhaustion or unconsciousness in about one to two hours, and has an expected survival time of up to six hours, according to the U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force.
Readings from coast guard vessels involved in the search showed the water was 11 degrees Celsius around the ferry today.
In 1970 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.
There were 568 maritime accidents in South Korea waters last year, with 45 percent due to collisions and mechanical problems, according to the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries.
South Korea has been investing in new cruise terminals in Incheon and other coastal cities to attract more tourists from China and Japan. That has prompted companies such as Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL), the world’s second-largest cruise line, to expand into Asia as economic growth is making it more affordable for people to travel by ships.
Routes to Jeju, an island also known as ‘South Korea’s Hawaii,’ are especially popular. A total of 2.3 million foreign tourists visited Jeju last year, with Chinese visitors accounting for 78 percent, according to data on the Jeju government’s website. Domestic visitors to Jeju totaled 8.5 million last year, up 6.3 percent from 2012.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stuart Biggs at firstname.lastname@example.org Brian Fowler