On Thursday rescuers fought rising winds and waves as they searched for hundreds of people, mostly teenage schoolchildren, still missing after a South Korean ferry capsized more than 24 hours ago.
Coastguard and navy divers were diving into the waters at the site of the accident, about 20 km (12 miles) off the country’s southwestern coast, searching for any sign of the 290 missing people.
Earlier, rescue teams hammered on the hull of the upturned, mostly submerged vessel, hoping for a response from anyone trapped inside, but they heard nothing, local media reported. So far, 179 people have been rescued and nine people, including five students and two teachers, were confirmed dead in what could be the country’s worst maritime accident in 20 years.
The government said three cranes were being moved to the site of the accident and would arrive on Friday, although efforts were continuing to establish whether there were any survivors on the stricken vessel.
Although the water at the site of the accident is relatively shallow at under 50 meters (165 feet), it is still dangerous for the 150 or so divers working flat out, experts said. Time was running out to find any survivors trapped inside, they said.
“The chances of finding people in there (alive) are not zero,” said David Jardine-Smith, secretary of the International Maritime Rescue Federation, adding, however, that conditions were extremely difficult.
There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students on a school trip to the tourist island of Jeju in the south of the country. The ferry had traveled overnight from Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea, and was three hours short of its destination when the ship began to list. The cause is not yet known.
Now the captain of a capsized South Korean is being investigated for abandoning a vessel, negligence, manslaughter and leaving the ship with passengers on board. The captain, Lee Joon-seok, who is reportedly in his 60s, escaped from the 6,835-ton Sewol just 40 minutes after the vessel apparently ran aground and started to list severely.
The captain’s first instructions were for the passengers to put on life jackets and stay put, and it was not until about 30 minutes later that he ordered an evacuation, said a 58-year-old crew member, Oh Yong-seok. However, Oh said he wasn’t sure if the captain’s order, given to crew members, was actually relayed to passengers on the public address system, as well as several survivors, who said they never heard any evacuation order.
“People were shouting, ‘Break the windows,’ but the water came up too quickly and many could not come outside,” Kim Seong-muk, a rescued passenger, told the television station YTN. Survivors reported hearing a loud noise and feeling a jolt before the ship, the Sewol, began to list and sink.
One parent, Park Yung-suk, told Reuters at the port of Jindo where the rescue efforts are centered that she had seen the body of her teenage daughter’s teacher brought ashore earlier in the morning.
“If I could teach myself to dive, I would jump in the water and try to find my daughter,” she said.