Friday 6 December 2019

Doomed ferry 'didn't turn sharply'

The sun begins to set above searchers and divers looking for bodies of passengers believed to have been trapped in the sunken ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul (AP)
The sun begins to set above searchers and divers looking for bodies of passengers believed to have been trapped in the sunken ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul (AP)
Emergency workers carry the bodies of passengers found in the wreck of the Sewol ferry at a port in Jindo, South Korea (AP)
A relative awaits news of his missing loved one as divers search the interior of the sunken ferry (AP)
Searchers and divers look for people believed to have been trapped in the sunken ferry Sewol near Jindo on the southern coast of South Korea (AP)

New evidence shows that the sunken South Korean ferry did not make a sharp turn shortly before the disaster, but changed course much more gradually, it has emerged.

Full data from the Sewol's automatic identification system, an on-board transponder used for tracking, showed that the ship in fact made a J-shaped turn before listing heavily and ultimately sinking last week, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing.

A ministry of ocean and fisheries official said on Friday that the vessel had taken a sharp turn, but another official said today the AIS data had been incomplete and the true path of the ship became clear when the information was fully restored.

The cause of the disaster is not yet known. The third mate, who has been arrested, 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.

Authorities have not named her, though a colleague identified her as Park Han-gyeol.

Meanwhile, more than 100 bodies have been retieved from the wreckage of the ferry.

Dozens of police formed a cordon around the dock on Jindo island as the latest bodies arrived. T he death toll has shot up s ince the weekend when divers found a way to enter the submerged ferry. Officials said today the fatalities had reached 104.

The ferry sank with 476 people on board, many of them pupils from a single high school.

Families waited in anguish for word of their loved ones, trying to piece together small clues written on a white signboard, before finally getting enough information to make a positive identification.

Lee Byung-soo said when he saw his 15-year-old son's body in a tent he knew he was dead, but wanted so much for him to be alive. "Stop sleeping!" the lorry driver yelled as he hugged Lee Seok-joon. "Why are you sleeping so much? Daddy will save you!"

He pumped his son's chest and blew into his mouth to try to resuscitate him, "but I could only smell a rotting stench".

This type of heartbreak awaits the families of about 200 people still missing from the submerged Sewol, or at least those whose relatives' bodies are ultimately recovered.

Families who once dreamed of miraculous rescues now simply hope their loved ones' remains are recovered soon, before the ocean does much more damage.

After the bodies are pulled from the water, police and doctors look for forms of ID and take notes on the body's appearance, clothing and any identifying physical marks.

The bodies are transported to Jindo island, about an hour's boat ride away, as rescuers notify families waiting at the port, or at a gymnasium where many are sheltering. Bodies without IDs are described to officials in Jindo who relay the details to the relatives.

At the dock, bodies are taken to a white tent for another inspection, then transported by ambulance to another tent. A coroner there cleans up the bodies, mostly to wipe off oil and dirt and straighten limbs, and then the families file in.

About 250 of the more than 300 missing or dead are pupils from the high school, in Ansan near Seoul, who were on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju.

The families, and South Koreans more broadly, have at times responded with fury. The captain initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and waited more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order as the Sewol sank. By then, the ship had tilted so much it is believed that many passengers were trapped inside.

At a cabinet briefing, President Park Geun-hye said: "What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. Unforgivable, murderous behaviour."

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Four other crew members have been detained.

A transcript of ship-to-shore communications revealed a ship that was crippled with indecision. A crew member asked repeatedly whether passengers would be rescued after abandoning ship even as the ferry tilted so sharply that it became impossible to escape.

Captain Lee, 68, has said he waited to issue an evacuation order 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.

Emergency task force spokesman Koh Myung-seok said bodies were mostly found on the third and fourth floor of the ferries, where many passengers seemed to have gathered. Many students were also in cabins on the fourth floor, near the stern of the ship.

Many relatives of the dead and missing also have been critical of the government, which drew more outrage with the resignation of Song Young-chur, a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.

Mr Song, chief of the Regional Development Policy Bureau, reportedly tried to take a commemorative photo of the situation room in Jindo where government officials brief relatives of the missing.

Most of the bodies found have been recovered since the weekend, when divers, frustrated for days by strong currents, bad weather and poor visibility, were finally able to enter the ferry. But conditions remain challenging.

"I cannot see anything in front ... and the current underwater is too fast," said Choi Jin-ho, a professional diver who searched the ferry. "Then breathing gets faster and panic comes."

Searchers yesterday deployed a remote-controlled underwater camera dubbed the ROV1 to explore the inside of the ferry. Unlike divers who have to surface after 20 minutes, the US-built camera can be used for two to three hours.

The ministry official speaking today would not elaborate but provided a map that showed both the hard 115-degree turn originally estimated and the more gradual path the restored data describes.

Senior prosecutor Ahn Song-don said the third mate told investigators why she made the turn, but would not reveal her answer, saying more investigation was needed.

PA Media

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