|The mother of a child trapped in the sunken ferry Sewol kneels and pleads for stronger rescue efforts as President Park Geun-hye visits passengers’ families at a gymnasium in Jindo, South Jeolla Province, Thursday. (Yonhap)|
President Park Geun-hye visited the scene of the ferry Sewol’s sinking on Thursday, as the search and rescue operations crawled along, hampered by increasingly adverse weather conditions.
The death toll rose to 14 while 282 remained unaccounted for as of 10:00 p.m. The ferry Sewol, operated by Chonghaejin Marine Co., sank Wednesday, some 20 kilometers off the coast of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province. It was heading to Jejudo Island from Incheon with 475 passengers and crew onboard.
Although the president attempted to reassure family members that the government was doing its best in the search and rescue operations, she was met with mixed reactions.
While some implored her to order a thorough search, others clamored to be heard at a gymnasium on Jindo Island.
Faced with an agitated crowd, Park told government officials to ensure that the families were given accurate information as the rescue operations unfolds. She also said that those found to have played a part in causing the accident will be made to answer for their actions.
“If what we promised here today isn’t realized, everyone here needs to resign, so there is no chance (that the promises will be broken),” Park said, indicating the government officials standing behind her.
Rescue workers mount the hull of the Sewol on Thursday. (Yonhap)
Earlier in the day, Park visited the scene of the sinking to offer words of encouragement to rescue personnel.
“I am very concerned that rescue efforts are slow even though so many personnel and equipment were mobilized,” Park said aboard the ship, asking rescue workers to do their best to find survivors.
“The weather is cold at sea, and it is colder underwater. If there are survivors, every minute and second is critical,” she said.
The nine dead include five Danwon High School students, two teachers and two ferry company workers. There were 339 students and teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, on board.
Of the 75 students confirmed to have been rescued, 65 were being treated at the Korea University Ansan Hospital. Although no serious injuries were reported, the students are said to be showing signs of extreme anxiety and stress.
With the president repeatedly emphasizing the rescue efforts, the government has set up a pan-government response center headed by Prime Minister Chung Hong-won.
In addition, the government is reviewing plans to designate Jindo Island and nearby coastal areas a special disaster zone.
“The government is mulling declaring Jindo Island and the offshore areas a special disaster zone to secure the funds necessary for rescue operations and to better care for the victims,” an official from the Ministry of Security and Public Administration was quoted as saying by a local news agency.
As was the case on Wednesday, adverse weather conditions hampered the rescue efforts throughout Thursday.
The joint rescue team consisting of government and civilian divers resumed search and rescue operations for possible survivors. But rain coupled with winds of up to 10 meters per second impeded their work.
The waves also swelled as the day progressed, while about 20 mm of rain was expected in the area through Thursday.
Diving operations were limited to sessions of several minutes due to poor visibility and strong waves. The Coast Guard had initially planned to begin pumping air into the vessel at 12:30 p.m., but the plan is said to have been postponed, also due to weather conditions.
Pumping air into the sunken vessel is aimed at raising it to make the underwater search easier.
“We carried out five underwater searches from midnight until early in the morning, but strong currents and murky water pose tremendous obstacles,” said Security Minister Kang Byung-kyu at a press briefing early Thursday.
Kang said that 169 boats and 29 aircraft were mobilized in the area and that salvage cranes were on their way to raise the sunken vessel. The first crane is due to arrive on Friday morning.
As for the Navy, which plays a major role in pan-government response efforts, it established a military control tower on the 14,000-ton flat-deck amphibious assault ship Dokdo to support the Coast Guard’s search and rescue operations.
The cause of the accident and developments that followed remain unclear, but survivors and eyewitnesses have reported irregularities surrounding the incident.
The ferry’s crew told passengers to remain inside, while its captain allegedly escaped ahead of them using the only properly functioning lifeboat among over 40.
The ship’s captain, identified by the surname Lee, is now under police investigation for manslaughter.
Although the Sewol was initially speculated to have been damaged by an underwater rock, the Coast Guard reportedly now suspects that a sharp change of direction was the cause. Lee is also under scrutiny for his actions following the accident.
In addition, he is reported to have told his crew to evacuate within 10 minutes of the incident while informing the passengers to remain in the cabins.
Speculations that the ferry may have deviated from its course, however, now appear unlikely.
Although the Sewol did deviate from the route recommended by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, the ministry said the ship had followed the course the ferry company submitted to the maritime police.
By Choi He-suk (email@example.com)
Yoon Min-sik contributed to this article. ― Ed.