Friday 31 October 2014

South Korea ferry death toll rises

Published 20/04/2014 | 01:22

Relatives of missing passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol struggle with policemen as they try to march toward the presidential house to protest the government's rescue operation in Jindo, South Korea (AP)
Rescue workers carry a recovered body ashore in Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea (AP)

The official death toll in the South Korean ferry sinking has soared to 58 after divers finally succeeded in entering the vessel.

The new toll emerged as a newly released transcript showed the ferry's crew were crippled with confusion and indecision well after it began listing dangerously.

Three times in succession, and about half an hour after the ferry Sewol began tilting on Wednesday, a crew member asked Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Centre (VTS) whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned ship off South Korea's southern coast.

That followed several statements from the ship that it was impossible for people aboard to even move, and another in which it said it was "impossible to broadcast" instructions.

Many people followed the captain's initial order to stay below deck, where it is feared they remain trapped. About 240 people are still missing.

Only 174 people are known to have survived the sinking of the Sewol, which had been on its way from the South Korean port city of Incheon to the southern island of Jeju. The captain initially ordered passengers to stay in their rooms, and took more than a half hour to issue an evacuation order - an order several passengers have said they never heard.

The confirmed death toll jumped from 33 to 58 within 24 hours as divers, hampered for days by strong currents, bad weather and low visibility, finally found a way inside the sunken vessel.

They quickly discovered more than a dozen bodies there in what almost certainly was just the beginning of a massive and grim recovery effort. Some of the bodies found were recovered outside the ship.

Divers, who once pumped air into the ferry in the slim hope that survivors were inside, have yet to find anyone alive there.

The Sewol sank with 476 people on board, 323 of them students from a high school in Ansan. The 16 and 17-year-old students make up only 75 of the survivors, and about 225 of the missing. At least 23 of those confirmed dead are students, according to coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in.

A 21-year-old South Korean sailor, surnamed Cho, also died from injuries he sustained while working on a warship going to help rescue passengers in the ferry, said Commander Yim Myung-soo of the South Korean navy.

The heartbreaking task of recovering the bodies led to yet another - identifying them. Information sheets taped to the walls of a gymnasium on Jindo island where families of the missing are staying listed details of the bodies such as sex, height, length of hair and clothing.

It was too little for Lee Joung-hwa, a friend of a crew member who is among the missing. "If only they could have made some kind of image of the person's face. Who can tell who this person is just by height and weight?" Mr Lee said.

A woman with a blue baseball cap shouted complaints at government officials who were seated nearby, working at their desks. "I can't live like this. I'm so anxious." she yelled. "How can I trust the police?"

Anguished families of the missing, fearful they might be left without even their loved ones' bodies, also blocked the prime minister's car during a visit and attempted a long protest march to the presidential Blue House in Seoul, about 250 miles to the north.

About 100 relatives walked for around six hours before some 200 police officers in neon jackets blocked them from continuing on a main road. The relatives said they wanted to travel to the Blue House to voice their complaints to the president.

"The government is the killer," they shouted as they pushed against a police barricade.

"We want an answer from the person in charge about why orders are not going through and nothing is being done," said Lee Woon-geun, father of 17-year-old missing passenger Lee Jung-in. "They are clearly lying and kicking the responsibility to others."

Relatives of the missing blocked the car of Prime Minister Chung Hong-won and demanded a meeting with President Park Geun-hye, as Mr Chung made a visit to Jindo. Mr Chung later returned to the gymnasium, but met only with a number of representatives of the family members in a side office.

Relatives are desperate to retrieve bodies before they decompose beyond recognition, Mr Lee said.

"After four or five days, the body starts to decay. When it's decayed, if you try to hold a hand it might fall off," he said. "I miss my son. I'm really afraid I might not get to find his body."

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested yesterday along with one of the Sewol's three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third mate, on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. The third mate was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time. The cause of the sinking is not known, but prosecutors said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said the third mate has refused to tell investigators why she made the sharp turn. He said that she had a "psychological shock" and fainted under questioning, but that she told investigators she did not need medical attention.

Prosecutors have not identified the third mate, but a fellow crew member identified her as Park Han-kyul.

Mr Yang said about 40 people have been barred from leaving South Korea while authorities investigate the sinking.

The captain, as he was taken from court in Mokpo, had explained his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation.

"At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties," Mr Lee told reporters. "The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time."

Press Association

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