Nation praying for a miracle

April 17, 2014
The nation is praying that more survivors from the sunken ferry Sewol would be found. They can only wait. (Yonhap)

The nation was hoping against hope Thursday that more survivors from the sunken ferry Sewol would be found. They can only wait. (Yonhap)

Ansan area high school students held a candlelight vigil hope for their friends' safe return. (Yonhap)

Ansan area high school students held a candlelight vigil to hope for their friends’ safe return. (Yonhap)

By Kim Da-ye, Yoon Sung-won

JINDO ― The nation was hoping against hope Thursday that more survivors from the sunken ferry Sewol would be found.

Unfortunately, that collective prayer fell short of helping find anyone alive many hours after the ferry capsized near Jindo Island off the southwestern coast.

The government confirmed that 276 out of the 475 passengers and crewmembers were listed as missing, with 20 confirmed dead and 179 rescued. The increase in the number of saved people came from a recount.

More than a day after the sinking, it was unclear what caused the 6,825-ton vessel to capsize and why so many passengers failed to evacuate during the two hours before it turned over.

The Coast Guard suspects that a sharp turn by the ship might have caused a sudden shift of its cargo, causing the ferry to list excessively. The loud thud survivors said they heard before the sinking could have been from the cargo shifting during the turn, it said.

More than 100 were injured and five of them are in critical condition.

The numbers changed little despite divers and their support staff being dispatched to search for living or dead passengers near and inside the sunken vessel.

The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters confirmed five of the passengers were foreign nationals ― two Korean-Chinese, Han Geum-hee, 37, and Lee Do-nam, 38; two Filipino entertainers, Emmanuel Manio, 45, and Alexandria Cabras, 40; and an 18-year-old Danwon High School student from Russia identified as Serkov. The Filipinos were rescued while the rest are missing.

The investigation into the cause of the accident started Thursday with Lee Joon-seok, 69, the captain, summoned to Mokpo Coast Guard Station.

At the station, he said, “I am sorry to the passengers, victims and their families.” He did not talk about the accident. Nine other crewmembers were also questioned.

Various news outlets claimed that Lee was among the first to leave the sinking vessel. Kim Soo-hyeon, the chief of the Coast Guard’s West Regional Headquarters, refused to confirm the allegation in a briefing at 7 p.m., but said Lee violated the 10th article of the Seafarer’s Act, which demands captains to be the last people to leave their ships.

When Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia capsized in January 2012, killing 32 of more than 4,200 people on board, its captain allegedly abandoned the ship before passengers evacuated. He is being tried on charges of manslaughter.

The Coast Guard said that the authority is working with experts from various research institutes including the National Forensic Service to investigate possible causes including errors committed by the crew, unorthodox freight loading or defects in the ship.

Goh Myeong-seok, a director of the Coast Guard, said in a briefing at the Ministry of Security and Public Administration (MOSPA) that divers hit the exterior of the ship’s hull with hammers to check for any responses from inside. There had been no responses, he said, adding that strong currents and poor visibility were hindering the rescue efforts.

In another briefing around 3 p.m., Yoo Young, a Coast Guard officer, said that it was raining and waves were two to three meters high near the ship wreck, making the divers have to wait.

Three maritime cranes weighing thousands of tons are heading to the accident site to lift the ferry. All three cranes are expected to arrive at the scene before 8 a.m. Friday.

Kim, however, told missing passengers’ family members gathered at Paengmok port late into the night that the cranes wouldn’t be used immediately, and more divers will be brought in. The announcement angered the families. “You talk about tomorrow only. What if some of those trapped inside are alive and die tomorrow?” a family member shouted at Kim, who didn’t answer.

An elderly man, whose daughter is one of the missing, jumped into the water, saying that he would go alone to find the trapped students. Several other people jumped into the water to save him.

Twenty nine airplanes and 171 boats have been dispatched to the site by the Coast Guard, the Navy and other defense forces.

The number of theories behind the cause of the sinking has increased with various experts giving different opinions while the government has remained tightlipped.

Yonhap reported that the Coast Guard now assumes the vessel ended up listing after it made a sharp turn. Some 180 vehicles and 1,157 ton of freight the ferry was carrying may have shifted to the left during the maneuver, causing the ship to capsize.

MOSPA has so far confirmed that the ferry did not deviate from its usual route. Chunghaejin Marine, the operator of the Sewol, shut down its website; and in the absence of clear information, rumors prevailed.

A widely circulated tweet on Twitter said that 34 students are gathered in an “air pocket” formed in an alley. The tweet also said that more students were alive in the cafeteria and two rooms. None of these claims were confirmed by the government.

The earlier frequent changes in information provided by the government didn’t help the situation.

MOSPA modified the number of passengers and crew members on board from 462 to 475 because it later found that 13 truck drivers boarded the ship without tickets.