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S Korea ferry toll hits 159 as relatives wait

24 April 2014, 09:07

Jindo - Divers made their way deeper on Thursday into the submerged wreck of a ferry that sank more than a week ago as the death toll neared 160 and relatives of the more than 140 still missing pressed the government to finish the grim task of recovery soon.

At a port on this island near the scene of divers' efforts, relatives lined up for a daily ritual, crowding around a large signboard to read updates about bodies found overnight and the search plan for the day. Volunteers posted messages of support: "Please come back home," one of the messages said. "We pray for you."

Navy divers on Thursday were searching the rear of the ferry's fourth floor, officials posted on a sign board. The coast guard and a rescue company were searching the middle section of the same floor, and another team was to search the front and middle of the fourth floor. Officials also posted new numbers at the port: 159 dead; 143 missing.

As divers plunge deeper into the ferry, the work gets harder as they find they have to rip through cabin walls to retrieve more victims.

Looming in the background is a sensitive issue: When to bring in the cranes and begin the salvage effort by cutting up and raising the submerged vessel.

"Now we think we have to deal with this realistically," said Pyun Yong-gi, whose 17-year-old daughter is among the missing.

"We don't want the bodies to decay further, so we want them to pull out the bodies as quickly as they can," Pyun said on Jindo Island, where recovered bodies are taken for families to identify.

That view is not shared among all relatives of the missing, however. One of them, Jang Jong-ryul, was sensitive about the mere mention of the word "salvage" and said most families don't want to think about it.

‘Starting to smell’

The number of corpses recovered has risen sharply since the weekend, when divers battling strong currents and low visibility were finally able to enter the submerged vessel. But the task is becoming more difficult.

"The lounge is one big open space, so once in it we got our search done straight away. But in the case of the cabins, we will have to break down the walls in between because they are all compartments," said Koh Myung-seok, spokesperson for the government-wide emergency task force.

The government has not said when it intends to begin the salvage effort, though it has said it will be considerate of the families of the missing.

For some relatives of the missing, speed in recovering the dead is becoming more important.

"I've seen the bodies and they are starting to smell. It inflicts a new wound for the parents to see the bodies decomposed," Pyun said.

He and other relatives have set a deadline of Thursday for the government to recover all the bodies, though he concedes they have no way to enforce it. "We are not the ones who are actually doing it, so we know that there is nothing we can do," Pyun said.

The victims of the 16 April disaster are overwhelmingly students of a single high school in Ansan, near Seoul. More than three-quarters of the 323 students are dead or missing, while nearly two-thirds of the other 153 people on board survived.

The funeral halls in Ansan are already full, and Oh Sang-yoon of the task force centre said in a statement that the centre "is taking measures to accommodate additional bodies by placing mortuary refrigerators at the funeral halls in Ansan," and directing mourning families to funeral homes in nearby cities.

Twenty-two of the 29 members of the ferry's crew survived, and 11, including Captain Lee Joon-seok, have been arrested or detained in connection with the investigation. Two of the crew were arrested on Wednesday, senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said.

Ahn said an analysis of photos and video on the ship before its sinking showed the captain and other arrested crew members didn't rescue passengers, though it was their duty.

Ahn said the crew members were at the ship's steering room or engine room together before fleeing the Sewol earlier than passengers.

Steering gear

The captain initially told passengers to stay in their cabins, and waited about half an hour to issue an evacuation order. He has said he waited because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived.

But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck - where they would have had a greater chance of survival - without telling them to abandon ship.

It was not the crew but a passenger who first alerted authorities that the boat was in distress, the coast guard confirmed on Wednesday.

An emergency call was made 08:52 last Wednesday to the Jeonnam 119 fire department, which transferred the call to the Mokpo coast guard office, the coast guard said in an emailed statement. The ferry made its first distress call three minutes later.

Yonhap news agency reported that the caller was a student from Ansan, and remains missing.

The cause of the disaster is not yet known. Ahn said investigators are considering factors including wind, ocean currents, freight, modifications made to the ship and the fact that it turned just before it began listing.

Tracking data show that the ship made a 45-degree turn, and that it turned about 180 degrees in the course of about three minutes around the time the vessel began to list.

A maritime professor who spoke with the Sewol's third mate, who is among those arrested and was steering the ferry before it sank, said he suspects a problem with the steering gear caused the sinking.

Professor Kim Woo-Sook of Mokpo National Maritime University said he spoke to Park Han-gyeol, a former student, at a Mokpo detention facility. He says she told him she ordered a helmsman to make just a 5-degree turn, but the steering gear turned too far and the helmsman could not turn it back.

Kim said the steering gear would not have been enough alone to capsize the ship, but he suspects it caused poorly secured freight to shift, making the vessel unbalanced.

He said he told her he believes she didn't make any mistakes in steering the ship, but that was wrong to have followed the captain in escaping the ship without protecting the passengers.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said government investigators have not confirmed problems in the steering gear of the Sewol.

- AP


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