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Sunday 8 December 2019

Ferry's navigation crew in custody

A relative of a passenger aboard the sunken ferry Sewol is consoled by a Buddhist nun as she waits for news of her missing loved one at a port in Jindo, South Korea (AP)
A relative of a passenger aboard the sunken ferry Sewol is consoled by a Buddhist nun as she waits for news of her missing loved one at a port in Jindo, South Korea (AP)

All 15 crew members involved in navigating the doomed South Korean ferry which left 302 people dead or missing after sinking, are now in custody, authorities said today.

Prosecutor Yang Jung-jin of the joint investigation team said two helmsmen and two members of the steering crew were detained. Eleven other crew members, including the captain, were arrested previously.

They are accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need as the Sewol sank on April 16.

The captain 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 escape.

Ten days after the sinking, 187 bodies have been recovered and 115 people remain missing.

Divers have reached two large rooms where many of the lost may lie dead, but the search for bodies has been suspended because of bad weather.

S trong wind and rain were expected all weekend at the site of the wreck near Jindo island, along South Korea's southern coast.

"This morning (the divers) did a primary dive, but because of the strong current they were losing their masks, so we have stopped the dive for now," Kim Jin-hwang, commanding the dive search, said.

"We are expecting the weather to deteriorate in the afternoon," said Ko Myung-seok, spokesman for the emergency task force, "but the government will do its best in the rescue and search process."

The two rooms where searchers hope to find more of the missing are sleeping units designed for many people - one in the stern and one in the bow. Fifty pupils from Danwon High School in Ansan, on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju, were booked into one of them.

Students from the city near Seoul make up more than 80% of the 302 people dead or missing.

Large objects toppled when the ferry tipped over and sank are believed to be keeping divers from reaching bodies in at least one of the rooms.

Families have been upset with the pace of the recovery effort, along with several miscommunications by the government and perceptions of insensitivity. The government has also been accused of rejecting help it should have accepted, such as a diving bell that civilian volunteer Lee Jong-in of Alpha Sea Rescue first offered several days ago.

The diving bell provides oxygen to divers and allows them to stay underwater longer. The coastguard previously said the current and water depth at the site made the bell unusable, butthe government announced yesterday that it would be deployed.

Mr Ko said the bell had not been used yet because the process of setting it up "didn't go smoothly".

There have also been several media reports of bodies going to the wrong families, with the error sometimes caught only after the remains were taken to a funeral home.

Yesterday the government admitted that some recovered bodies had been misidentified and announced changes to prevent such mistakes from happening again. Remains will be now be transferred to families when there is a match using DNA testing or fingerprint or dental records.

The government has also been criticised for poorly regulating the ferry industry.

The Sewol was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo, said Moon Ki-han, a vice president at Union Transport, which loaded it. That is more than three times what an inspector who examined the vessel during a redesign said it could safely carry. It also far exceeds what the captain claimed in paperwork: 150 cars and 657 tons of other cargo, according to the coastguard.

Lee Kyu Yeul, professor emeritus in ship and offshore plant design at Seoul National University's Department of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering, said the reported load could have set the ship tipping over with a significant turn. Tracking data show the ship turned 45 degrees before sinking and crew members have reportedly said that they had tried to make a much less severe turn.

Prosecutor Mr Yang said Friday that the cause of the sinking could be due to excessive veering, improper stowage of cargo, modifications made to the ship and tidal influence.

US president Barack Obama expressed his condolences on his visit to South Korea, presenting President Park Geun-hye with an American flag that flew over the White House the day the ferry sank. His visit was aimed at issues including North Korea, but he noted that his trip came at a time of "great sorrow".

"So many were young students with their entire lives ahead of them," Mr Obama said, invoking his two daughters, both close in age to many of the ferry victims.

"I can only imagine what the parents are going through at this point, the incredible heartache."

Mr Obama said he was donating a magnolia tree from the White House lawn to Danwon School in honour of the lives lost, and as a symbol of friendship between the US and South Korea.

PA Media

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