Grim work for families as more bodies found in ferry

2014-04-21 08:04
South Korean relatives of a victim of a capsized ferry react in Jindo. (Truth Leem, AFP)

South Korean relatives of a victim of a capsized ferry react in Jindo. (Truth Leem, AFP)

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Jindo - There are no names listed as relatives huddle around signboards to identify bodies from a sunken ferry. Just the slimmest of clues about mostly young lives now lost. Many favoured hoodies and track pants. One girl painted her fingernails red and toenails black. Another had braces on her teeth.

As divers increasingly making their way into the ship, including a new entryway through the dining hall on Monday, there's been a big jump in the discovery of corpses. And so more grim work for relatives gathered on Jindo, an island near the ferry. Until recently, they have been waiting and hoping that round-the-clock rescue operations would find survivors.

Meanwhile, a newly released transcript shows the ship was crippled by confusion and indecision well after it began listing Wednesday. The transcript suggests that the chaos may have added to a death toll that could eventually exceed 300.

Many people followed the captain's initial order to stay below deck, where it is feared they remain trapped. Sixty-four bodies have been recovered, and about 240 people are still missing. The ferry sank with 476 people on board, many of them students from a single high school.

According to the transcript released by South Korea's coast guard, about 30 minutes after the Sewol began tilting a crew member asked a marine traffic controller whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned ship off South Korea's southern coast. The crew member posed the question three times in succession.

That followed several statements from the ship that people aboard could not move and another in which someone said that it was "impossible to broadcast" instructions.

An unidentified official at Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center told the crew that they should "go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing."

"If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?" the unidentified crew member asked.

"At least make them wear life rings and make them escape!" the traffic-center official responded.

"If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?" the crew member asked again.

"Don't let them go bare — at least make them wear life rings and make them escape," the traffic official repeated. "The rescue of human lives from the Sewol ferry ... the captain should make his own decision and evacuate them. We don't know the situation very well. The captain should make the final decision and decide whether you're going to evacuate passengers or not."

"I'm not talking about that," the crew member said. "I asked — if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?"

The traffic official then said patrol boats would arrive in 10 minutes, though another civilian ship was already nearby and had told controllers that it would rescue anyone who went overboard.

The cause of the disaster is not yet known, but prosecutors have said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list. Several crew members, including the captain, have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning passengers.

More than 170 people survived the sinking of the Sewol, which had been on its way from the South Korean port city of Incheon to the southern tourist island of Jeju. The captain took more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order, which several passengers have said they never heard.

The confirmed death toll climbed over the weekend after divers finally found a way inside the sunken vessel and quickly discovered more than a dozen bodies. They had been hampered for days by strong currents, bad weather and low visibility.

Dozens of relatives have started camping out at the port in Jindo to be closer to where the search was taking place, sleeping in tents in the open. Volunteers provided food and drinks and ran cellphone charging stations. A Buddhist monk in white robes stood facing the water and chanted in a calm monotone as several relatives stood behind him, their hands pressed together and heads bowed in prayer.

Anguished families, fearful they might be left without even their loved ones' bodies, vented rage Sunday over the government's handling of the crisis.

About 100 relatives attempted a long protest march to the presidential Blue House in Seoul, about 400km to the north, saying they wanted to voice their complaints to President Park Geun-hye. They walked for about six hours before police officers in neon jackets blocked a main road.

"The government is the killer," they shouted as they pushed against a police barricade.

"We want an answer from the person in charge about why orders are not going through and nothing is being done," said Lee Woon-geun, father of 17-year-old missing passenger Lee Jung-in. "They are clearly lying and kicking the responsibility to others."

He said relatives are desperate to retrieve bodies before they decompose beyond recognition.

"After four or five days, the body starts to decay. When it's decayed, if you try to hold a hand, it might fall off," he said. "I miss my son. I'm really afraid I might not get to find his body."

The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested Saturday, along with one of the ship's three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third mate. The third mate was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said the third mate has refused to tell investigators why she made the sharp turn. Prosecutors have not named the third mate, but a fellow crew member identified her as Park Han-kyul.

As he was taken from court in Mokpo on Saturday, the captain explained his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation.

"At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold," Lee told reporters, describing his fear that passengers, even if they were wearing life jackets, could drift away "and face many other difficulties."

He said rescue boats had not yet arrived, and there were no civilian vessels nearby.

Kim reported from Mokpo, South Korea; Foster Klug, Youkyung Lee, Jung-yoon Choi and Leon Drouin-Keith in Seoul; and Minjeong Hong in Jindo contributed to this report.

- AP
Read more on:    south korea  |  ferry disaster
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