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Saturday 7 December 2019

Bad weather hinders ferry search

Messages in memory of the dead from the Sewol ferry disaster are posted at Danwon High School (AP)
Messages in memory of the dead from the Sewol ferry disaster are posted at Danwon High School (AP)

Divers have renewed their search for more than 100 bodies still trapped in the sunken South Korean ferry after weekend efforts were hindered by bad weather, strong currents and floating debris clogging the ship's rooms.

Authorities now say they have narrowed down the likely locations of most of the remaining missing passengers.

Divers found only one body yesterday after a week that saw an increasing number of corpses pulled from the ship as divers made their way through its labyrinth of cabins, lounges and halls.

The number of dead from the April 16 sinking is 188, with 114 people believed missing, though a government emergency task force has said the ship's passengers list could be inaccurate. Only 174 people survived, including 22 of the 29 crew members.

Senior coastguard officer Kim Su-hyeon said most of the remaining missing passengers were believed to be in 64 of the ship's 111 rooms. Divers have entered 36 of those 64 rooms but may need to go back into some because floating debris made it difficult for divers to be sure that there were no more bodies.

Ko Myung-seok of the emergency task force said 92 divers were searching the ferry. He said the government was making plans to salvage the ferry once search efforts ended.

South Korea's prime minister resigned yesterday over the government's handling of the sinking, blaming "deep-rooted evils" in society for the tragedy.

South Korean executive power is largely concentrated in the president, so Chung Hong-won's resignation appears to be symbolic. Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said President Park Geun-hye would accept the resignation, but did not say when Mr Chung would leave office.

Mr Chung's resignation comes amid rising indignation over claims by the victims' relatives that the government did not do enough to rescue or protect their loved ones. Most of the dead and missing were high school pupils on a school trip.

Officials have taken into custody all 15 people involved in navigating the ferry Sewol, which sank on April 16. The seven surviving crew members who have not been arrested or detained held non-marine jobs such as chefs or stewards.

The arrested crew members are accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need. Captain Lee Joon-seok initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and took half an hour to issue an evacuation order, by which time the ship was tilting too severely for many people to get out.

Capt Lee said after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for passengers' safety in the cold, swift water.

In video released coastguard, the captain, wearing only a sweater and underpants, is shown leaping from the sinking ferry, which is tilted about 45 degrees, on to a rescue boat. According to coastguard official Kim Kyung-il, the ship's crew members did not tell rescuers who they were.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries has said it will soon change its ferry monitoring systems so passenger, vehicle and cargo information is processed electronically. There is not only uncertainty about how many people were on the Sewol, but a huge discrepancy regarding the amount of cargo it was carrying when it sank.

The ferry was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo, according to an executive of the company that loaded it. That far exceeds what the captain claimed in paperwork - 150 cars and 657 tons of other cargo, according to the coastguard - and is more than three times what an inspector who examined the vessel during a redesign last year said it could safely carry.

Pupils from Danwon High School in Ansan, a city near Seoul, make up more than 80% of the dead and missing; they had been on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju.

PA Media

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