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April 17, 2014 7:52 am
South Korea on Thursday accelerated its desperate search for almost 300 people, many of them schoolchildren, still missing after a ferry crash amid rising anger from grieving families over the conduct of the rescue operation.
Coastguard and navy divers were exploring the waters at the site of the accident, about 20km off the country’s southwest coast as they searched for 282 people still missing 24 hours after the Korean ferry capsized. The operation was hampered by strong tides and poor visibility.
The official death toll rose to 14 but many fear the sinking of the Sewol ferry could become the country’s worst maritime accident in two decades as hopes of finding any more survivors fade.
“I stress again and again that families, who are in the most difficult position, must be informed of every detail,” said Park Geun-hye, South Korean president, after meeting with relatives of some of the missing. “It’s a matter of trust.”
The cause of the accident remained unclear although the police said it had interviewed the captain, who made a public apology to the nation, and crew over the crash. The captain refused to answer reporters’ questions on what went wrong and why he left the sinking ship earlier than most of the passengers. The ministry of oceans and fisheries denied some local media reports that the ferry had veered off course and said the ship had sailed within the regular shipping lane and the area, where the ship sank, was free of reefs or rocks.
“We are still investigating the exact cause of the accident with all kinds of possibilities in mind,” said a marine police spokesman.
He added: “Some of them [the missing people] could still be alive if a sort of air pocket was formed inside the sunken ship but such a likelihood is small as already more than a day has passed since its sinking and given a lack of air inside the ship, cold seawater temperature, etc.”
The Sewol, the country’s second-largest passenger ferry, was carrying 475 people from Incheon to the resort island of Jeju, off the South Korean coast. It sank about three hours short of its destination.
Grieving family members have packed into a gym in the coastal city of Jindo, near the site of the crash, to wait for news. Anger among the families and the general public increased over the way the government dealt with the emergency, amid errors in calculating the number of people rescued and missing.
Some survivors said that they were told to sit still although the ship was sinking. “The rescue wasn’t done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time,” a survivor surnamed Koo told AP. “If people had jumped into the water . . . could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out.”
The 6,825-tonne ferry, operated by privately owned Chonghaejin Marine, was built in Japan in 1994 and is capable of carrying 921 passengers.
The fisheries ministry said the country has eight similar ferries in operation. It said it expects other ferry companies to check the safety of their own vessels but the ministry plans to conduct joint checks with the marine police and other related ministries on passenger ferries once the immediate rescue operation ends.
In late March, another ferry owned by Chonghaejin, with about 140 people on board, was involved in a crash with a fishing boat on the waters near Incheon but there were no casualties.
In 1993, South Korea suffered one of its worst shipping accidents in waters off the southwest coast as a ferry with 362 people on board capsized because of tidal waves. An estimated 292 people died in the accident.
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