South Korean President Park Geun Hye arrived at the site where a ferry sank yesterday, as divers battled high waves and strong winds in their search for 287 people still missing, including hundreds of students.
Over 100 ships and more than 500 divers have been searching for passengers who might still be alive in air pockets, officials said. The coast guard was checking if lifeboats on the ferry were functional and whether the captain gave an order for passengers to remain in their cabin as the ferry began to sink, a coast guard official investigating the incident said, asking not to be named citing official policy.
Broadcaster YTN showed footage of the captain with his head bowed and face hidden by a grey hooded sweatshirt as he declined to answer questions from reporters about why he left the sinking ferry when passengers were still on board. The captain, whose surname is Lee, will face further questioning, the coast guard official said.
The accident may be the worst since 1970, when the sinking of the ‘Namyoung’ ferry killed 323 people. At least nine people, including three students, died in yesterday’s incident, which occurred off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. A total of 179 people were rescued yesterday, with none rescued today.
The ferry listed and capsized in an area of the ocean as shallow as 20 meters (66 feet) in some parts, based on readings from a coast guard vessel used in the rescue operation.
“The weather there is too bad for a search,” You Young, director of the Marine Pollution Prevention Division at the Korea Coast Guard, told reporters in Seoul. “We have been trying to search the body of the ship but little progress.”
Many passengers may have been unable to escape as the ship turned over and sank too fast, Ko Myung Suk, director general of Equipment & Technology Bureau at Korea Coast Guard, told reporters in Seoul.
“I felt something seriously went wrong when I noticed the ship was listing as sharply as 45 degrees at around 9 a.m.,” Yang In Seok, a 48-year-old who was transporting cargo to Jeju together with three fellow delivery men, said, his neck wrapped in a cast. “I bolted from the third floor of the stern, bumping against the wall, and then made it up to the deck to find a helicopter pulling us up.”
Coast guard officials were unclear as to whether the ferry deviated from its scheduled or government-recommended route. The ferry took its “usual path” rather than the exact route recommended by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, Ko said. “We can’t say it’s a clear deviation from the route,” he said.
The accident happened off the ferry’s scheduled route, according to a member of Korea Coast Guard’s investigation team at the ship’s departure port of Incheon, who declined to give his name or further details when reached by phone today.
“I’m very much worried that rescue operations are slow even as huge manpower and equipment have been provided,” President Park said in a statement issued after her arrival at the accident site. “Each second, each minute can’t be wasted.”
The passengers included 325 students and 14 teachers from Danwon High School on an excursion to Jeju Island, according to the school’s website.
The school is closed today and tomorrow, while hundreds of parents whose children remain unaccounted for are packed into a gymnasium on Jindo Island, near the site of the sinking. Some scuffled and threw water at Prime Minister Chung Hong Won, who was surrounded by aides when he arrived last night.
The 6,325-ton ferry is submerged with only its bow visible. The site, 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) off the coast of Byeongpoong Island, was filled with coast guard and navy vessels, with helicopters and an air force surveillance plane overhead. An orange fence normally used to contain oil spills has been deployed to prevent anything rising from the ferry from drifting away.
The ship left from the port of Incheon late on April 15 on a trip that generally takes almost 14 hours. It sank about 3 hours from Jeju.
The coast guard received the accident alert from the ferry at 8:58 a.m. local time yesterday, the ministry said. The ship first listed, with rescuers lowered from helicopters rushing to pull survivors from one side of the ship. As the vessel began to sink, passengers were told to jump into the water, survivors said, and within three hours the ferry had sunk with just a bit of the bow remaining above water.
“The ship quickly tilted to 90 degrees,” the mother of An Min Soo, a student who survived the accident by jumping into the sea with a teacher and friends, said by phone. “He was in the water for five minutes and was transported to a lifeboat. He said there were announcements but he couldn’t hear them because the scene was too chaotic with noise.”
Confusion surrounded official statements about the incident. The government at one point said 368 were rescued, while the ship’s owner and operator Chonghaejin Marine Co. said 90 passengers were unaccounted for. Many of the mistakes were caused by double-counting, vice security minister Lee Gyeong Og said at a televised press briefing. The total number of people on the ferry was also revised repeatedly.
The nine confirmed casualties included high school student Jeong Cha Woong, according to the security ministry. Another was Park Ji Young, a female employee of the boat operator, South Korea’s disaster control agency said. Two other students also died, the security ministry said. At least three foreigners are among the missing.
The vessel, named “Sewol,” or “time and tide” in Korean, can carry as many as 921 passengers and 130 vehicles traveling between Incheon and Jeju Island. Chonghaejin Marine operates two vessels on the Incheon-Jeju route as well as two other services in the southern coastal area, according to the company’s website.
The Sewol is insured by Meritz Fire & Marine Insurance Co. for up to 7.8 billion won ($7.5 million) and by Korea Shipping Association for up to 3.6 billion won [$3.46 million], South Korea’s Financial Services Commission and Financial Supervisory Service said in an e-mailed joint statement. Korea Shipping Association and Meritz Fire are reinsured by Korean Reinsurance Co. and Samsung Fire & Marine Insurance Co., according to the statement.
It’s the second accident in less than a month involving a Chonghaejin ferry, after its “Democracy No. 5” collided with a fishing boat near Incheon late last month, with no casualties, according to a company official who asked not to be named, citing company policy.
The chances of finding more survivors are diminishing due to the cold ocean temperature in the area, about 13.2 degrees Celsius (56 degrees Fahrenheit), according to South Korea’s National Fisheries Research & Development Institute. That would probably lead to exhaustion or unconsciousness in about one to two hours, and has an expected survival time of up to six hours, according to the U.S. Search and Rescue Task Force.
Readings from coast guard vessels involved in the search showed the water was 11 degrees Celsius around the ferry today.
Yesterday’s accident may be the worst since 1970 when the sinking of the Namyoung ferry sank, killing 323 people, according to the General Insurance Association of Korea. The ‘Seohae’ ferry sank in 1993, killing 292, according to the Korea Maritime University.
There were 568 maritime accidents in South Korea waters last year, with 45 percent due to collisions and mechanical problems, according to the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries.
South Korea has been investing in new cruise terminals in Incheon and other coastal cities to attract more tourists from China and Japan. That has prompted companies such as Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the world’s second-largest cruise line, to expand into Asia as economic growth is making it more affordable for people to travel by ships.
Routes to Jeju, an island also known as ‘South Korea’s Hawaii,’ are especially popular. A total of 2.3 million foreign tourists visited Jeju last year, with Chinese visitors accounting for 78 percent, according to data on the Jeju government’s website. Domestic visitors to Jeju totaled 8.5 million last year, up 6.3 percent from 2012.
–With assistance from Kyunghee Park in Singapore and Seonjin Cha, Rose Kim, Shinhye Kang, Seyoon Kim and Heesu Lee in Seoul.