Death toll in South Korean ferry disaster reaches 113

Divers establish five underwater routes into wreck of ‘Sewol’ to search for bodies

A priest comforts a relative of a missing passenger from the sunken ferry ‘Sewol’ yesterday in Jindo harbor, South Korea. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/The New York Times

A priest comforts a relative of a missing passenger from the sunken ferry ‘Sewol’ yesterday in Jindo harbor, South Korea. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/The New York Times

Tue, Apr 22, 2014, 20:59

The death toll from the South Korean ferry Sewol which capsized last week has reached 113, as divers recovered more bodies from the decks of the five-storey vessel, where most of those unaccounted for are believed to have been trapped.

Hopes of finding survivors were fading rapidly as none of the missing passengers have been found alive since the ship sank off the southwestern island of Jindo last Wednesday. The search operation has turned from rescue to recovery.

But at least the weather has improved making the search easier, said rescuers. More than 190 passengers are still missing or presumed trapped inside the vessel.

Divers have established five underwater routes through the vessel, reported the Yonhap news agency. And they plan to add more to accelerate the operation. The rescue team has also dispatched two remotely-operated vehicles into the sea to assist with the search operation.

“Underwater operations will focus on the third and fourth floors, while vessels will search waters to prevent bodies from drifting away,” said the government’s disaster management team. “Search operations will go smoothly as waves in the rescue site are forecast to be about half a metre high and the speed of the currents is slow.”


Change in course
Of the 476 people on board, only 174 passengers, including the captain and most of its crew, were rescued as the boat listed due to what is believed to have been a faster than usual change in course. The victims are mostly students of a single secondary school in Ansan, near Seoul.

More than three-quarters of the 323 students are dead or missing, while nearly two-thirds of the other 153 people on board the ferry Sewol survived. It is still not clear why the vessel altered course so quickly, but the focus of the investigation is on the crew, some of whom have been criticised for not doing enough to save the lives of passengers.

The third mate, who was arrested on Saturday, was steering at the time of the incident in difficult waters where she had not piloted before. The captain said he was not on the bridge at the time.

Senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don told Yonhap that investigators are considering factors including wind, ocean currents, freight, modifications made to the ship and the fact that it turned just before it began listing. He said authorities would conduct a simulation and gather expert opinions.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members were arrested on Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need.


Ongoing investigation
Prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said a court issued arrest warrants for four other crew members whom authorities had detained a day earlier, while two additional crew members were detained yesterday.

Attention has also settled on the owners of the ferry service. As part of the investigation, prosecutors said they have banned 30 officials of the ferry’s operator and members of the owner family from leaving the country to determine whether they violated safety inspection regulations.

Shareholders of the Sewol’s owner, Chonghaejin Marine, apologised in a statement that was distributed to reporters outside the office in Incheon, saying they feel “infinite sadness”.

The company’s president had apologised earlier.

A government task force team has mobilised 212 boats, 34 aircraft and 550 rescue workers.

US president Barack Obama is scheduled to visit South Korea later this week and the Pentagon said it is sending a salvage ship, USS Safeguard , towards the peninsula from Thailand in case it is needed.

Recovered bodies have been brought to hospitals in the nearby port city of Mokpo.