Monday 20 October 2014

Parents' anguish as hopes of finding survivors fade

250 missing as weather forces halt to search

Malcolm Moore in South Korea

Published 18/04/2014 | 02:30

A woman offers prayers during a candlelight vigil for the missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea. AP
A woman offers prayers during a candlelight vigil for the missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea. AP
Rescue ships take part in a rescue operation around the Sewol passenger ship, which sank in the sea off Jindo. Reuters
Rescue ships take part in a rescue operation around the Sewol passenger ship, which sank in the sea off Jindo. Reuters
Rescue boats sail around the stricken South Korean ferry, Sewol, during their rescue operation.

The parents stood vigil on the jetty, wrapped in disposable plastic macs, clinging to hope as the wind and rain swirled around them.

Twelve miles away, their 250 teenage children were underwater, trapped inside the Sewol, the 7,000-tonne South Korean ferry that was carrying them to a four-day field trip on the holiday island of Jeju when it sank on Wednesday morning.

The 69-year-old captain, Lee Joon-seok, was facing uncomfortable questions at the investigation headquarters in Mokpo last night about why he had been among the first to evacuate from the sinking ship, leaving his post while students were drowning beneath him.

The situation for the parents appeared hopeless. On the second day of the rescue mission, visibility underwater was less than a foot and vicious currents stopped navy divers from even entering the submerged hull of the ship, the coastguard said. All efforts were abandoned in the early afternoon.

"There are 160 divers from the special forces but the current is so strong that they're being swept away when entering the water," said Kim Dohyun, a 52-year-old veteran of the Korean Special Forces who was acting as a parent liaison.

DIVERS

"Right now, the teams are tapping on the outside of the ship with hammers to listen for any survivors inside. When they can go in, only two divers at a time can fit because the corridors are so narrow," he added.

For officials, the goal now is to raise the ferry and three huge cranes are expected to reach the site, off the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula, today.

But many anguished parents continued to cling to the hope that their children remain alive and lashed out at what they said was official inertia and a government cover-up.

"We have received at least 20 text messages from children on the boat who are still alive," said one 42-year-old mother on the jetty, who gave her name as Mrs Jung.

One message, circulating around the parents, was allegedly a list of survivors organised by their class number sent from inside the ship. There was no way of verifying the text messages as they were sent from phone to phone multiple times.

"The government is blocking the news from getting out and there is no rescue mission for them," Mrs Jung cried.

"I think 40 to 50 students may be alive in the cafeteria," said Kim Joong Yeon, a 44-year-old father. "My wife spoke to our daughter Siyeon last night at 9.55pm. She said there was a fire above her and something had dropped on to her leg so she was burned. She said she could hear rescuers coming so she put down the phone, and that was the last we heard from her. She is in a fourth-floor cabin, and I believe she is still alive."

The parents insisted that civilian divers had volunteered to enter the ship but had been prevented from doing so by the government.

"The parents are very upset about the captain of the coast guard, who ordered the civilian divers to leave. There is no clear chain of command – the navy, the special forces, the coast guard and the local police all have different commanders and do not talk to each other," said Jin Kwangyung (53), whose daughter Yoonhwee is missing.

As anger at the government response grew, some parents tried to attack coastguard officials on the jetty and had to be held back by the crowd. "Children are dying! They sent messages! What do you mean bad weather has stopped you!" screamed one father, as he lunged forward.

In a nearby sports hall where hundreds more relatives are camping, the South Korean president was greeted with abuse when she visited.

"There will be a thorough investigation and whoever is responsible will be prosecuted," promised president Park Gyeun-hye, but was jeered with cries of "Liar!" and "How dare you come!".

Mr Kim, the special forces liaison, said the chances of finding further survivors was slim. "There is an air pocket in the front of the boat. If anyone made it there, they may have survived. But for anyone in the rest of the boat, hopes are low."

Unnamed investigators told the 'New York Times' that the vessel had made a sharp turn to the left before it began to tilt and the captain may have been trying to steer it back on course.

One investigator suggested that the ferry's cargo of 180 vehicles and more than 1,100 tonnes of cargo in shipping containers may not have been properly secured and could have lurched to one side when the ship turned, causing it to "tilt out of control".

In their panic, the crew failed to send a distress signal, and told passengers to remain in their cabins for over an hour. As the water rose, the victims may have then been unable to open their doors to escape.

The 480ft-long Sewol, built in Japan in 1994, is one of South Korea's largest ferries and passed its last safety inspection a couple of months ago. However, NBC, the Korean television station, noted that it had been rejigged in March 2013, with several new decks added to the back of the ship to increase its capacity to 921 passengers.

"My daughter Yoonhwee sent me a message before the boat left saying she did not want to go on the trip," said Mr Jin. "I sent her one back saying not to worry and to have a good time with her friends. When the boat started to sink she called me but I was driving and I missed it. I have not slept, or washed or done anything since." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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