Sunday 15 December 2019

Anguish for parents as ferry dead are recovered

South Korean Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Lee Ju-young (centre) struggles with angry family members of the missing passengers who were on the capsized Sewol passenger ship, which sank in the sea off Jindo
South Korean Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Lee Ju-young (centre) struggles with angry family members of the missing passengers who were on the capsized Sewol passenger ship, which sank in the sea off Jindo

Malcolm Moore, Jindo

The bodies came through the night and through the morning, their faces black with blood that had pooled and darkened under the skin.

At midnight, under the light of nearly a thousand flares and squid fishing boats strung with lines of high-powered lanterns, navy divers succeeded at last in entering the submerged Sewol ferry.

The first navy team broke a cabin window with a hammer on one deck to retrieve the bodies of three students who had been seen inside the day before.

As another team opened one of the ferry's exit doors, three more bodies floated out, pushed by the current flowing through the ship's narrow passages, said Hwang Dae-yung, the 62-year-old leader of the civilian dive teams.

A total of 18 bodies were brought out from inside the ship by yesterday afternoon, bringing the number of dead to 58 and those still missing to 244, the majority of them pupils from Danwon high school near Seoul.

But there was more confusion over how many people were on board, with CCTV footage showing several lorries driving on to the ferry without tickets, possibly adding to problems in the cargo hold.

There were further questions over handling of the emergency as a transcript released of exchanges between the Sewol and Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Centre (VTS) revealed indecision and miscommunication over whether to abandon ship.

Three times in succession, about half an hour after the ship began listing, a crew member asked VTS if the passengers would be quickly rescued if they abandoned ship.

The VTS official consistently replied that the crew should "make them wear life rings and make them escape". Finally, the official informed the Sewol that patrol boats were 10 minutes away, but failed to mention that a civilian ship was already nearby and had told VTS it was ready to rescue anyone overboard.

Prosecutors investigating the disaster said some of the 20 surviving crew members had confessed they had not had training on dealing with emergencies at sea, opening the possibility of legal action against Chonghaejin, the ferry operator.

On the wharf at Pangmok harbour, Jindo, where the bodies were brought to shore, a small group of fathers huddled inside a temporary shelter around a catering pack of 30 tins of coffee, their hands trembling as they chain-smoked.


"We are tired," said Jin Kwangyung (53) whose daughter Yoonhwe is among the missing. "We have almost given up. When we see anything we get very angry."

At dawn, scuffles broke out on the wharf after a mix-up delayed a boat carrying three bodies from docking for almost two hours while parents waited to see if their children were on board. "No one even tells us if a boat is coming in," Mr Jin said. "We just have to watch for when the police lines form and the journalists rush over."

Divers have described the task that faces them in extracting more than 240 bodies still on board the ferry as monumental. "This is the hardest situation I have ever seen," said Dae Sik-Hwang, the head of South Korea's Maritime Rescue Operation, which is co-ordinating the civilian dive teams.

"This is the worst place it could have happened in Korea because of the current underwater. It is one of the most dangerous places in the world to dive."

Out at sea, 7ft waves buffet the dinghies used by divers to reach the scene. The bows of the ferry lie 50ft beneath the water at high tide. Despite promises, no barge has been set up from which the dive crews can work.

"There are no survivors," said Mr Hwang. "There are no air pockets. It is totally filled with water. But we will continue to work on the operation and more divers are arriving. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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