Rescuers accelerated their search operations to find survivors on the sunken ferry Sewol in waters off Korea’s southwestern coast on Friday as grieving families made desperate appeals for more efforts to save their loved ones.
Navy and Coast Guard divers injected air into the ship for possible survivors and installed buoys to keep it from sinking further. They also entered the ship’s interior for the first time since the 6,825-ton vessel capsized on Wednesday, but failed to find survivors.
As of Friday evening, 28 of the total 475 passengers were confirmed dead, while 268 remained unaccounted for. Among the passengers were 325 students of Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, who were on a school trip to Jejudo Island.
The vice principal of the high school, surnamed Kang, was found dead in an apparent suicide in the afternoon.
The police said that Kang apparently hanged himself from a tree on a hill near the gymnasium in Jindo, South Jeolla Province, where a disaster information center was set up for the families of the victims.
In the morning, four massive cranes arrived at the scene of the sinking to support the rescue efforts. Also joining the search were 108 naval ships, 61 civilian ships and 535 personnel including military and civilian divers.
The rescue authorities decided not to salvage the vessel until pulling up all the victims from the ship, as any mistakes in the salvaging process could lead to a loss of air and the bodies in the ship, given the strong tidal currents. The victims’ families had opposed the salvaging.
Announcing an interim result of its probe, an investigation team of prosecutors and police said that the captain of the ferry, surnamed Lee, gave the wheel to an inexperienced third mate before the vessel began sinking.
The investigators planned to seek an arrest warrant on Friday against Lee, who was questioned for the third consecutive day. Lee has been criticized for escaping first while hundreds of the passengers were fighting their way out.
“We still need to investigate where the captain was when the ship sank, as accounts conflict for now,” said Lee Sung-yun, head of the investigation team, during a press conference.
Touching on the cause of the sinking, the authorities said they were looking into whether the person behind the wheel changed direction normally or too sharply. Investigators suspect that the ship took a sharp turn when only a gradual change was required, which caused the ship to lose balance and ultimately capsize.
“Whether the sharp turn was the only cause, or any faults in the maintenance of the ship … we should conduct a thorough investigation into all of these,” said Park Jae-eok, a senior investigator.
The authorities also vowed to conduct an “exhaustive” probe into the sinking and the rescue process, and take stern action against those who have contributed to what appeared to be the country’s worst manmade disaster in decades.
The police also warned against the dissemination of unfounded rumors about survivors as messages through social networking services continued to circulate, further worsening the agony of the victims’ families.
Meanwhile, family members of the victims in the ferry disaster berated the government for what they called “insufficient” rescue efforts on Friday.
During a press conference, they also claimed that the government lied to them about the number of rescuers. The government said it mobilized 555 personnel, but the families argued there were fewer than 200 rescuers at the scene.
“We are pleading for help to you, the people, as we are infuriated about the government’s attitude,” the families said in a statement read out by their representative at the gymnasium on Jindo Island.
“There is no one explaining to us how the rescue operations are proceeding or directing us on what we should do. At this moment, our children would be screaming for help inside the ship.”
The families also denounced the rescue authorities, arguing that they did not make all-out efforts for fear of the underwater conditions.
“Although our children were dying, there were no rescue efforts. They said they would do it later, but they made excuses, arguing tidal currents were too strong, and that their own safety would be threatened,” the families said.
In efforts to ease the agony of the families, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won decided to stay at a police facility in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, from Friday onward to ensure sufficient state support for the rescue operations and improve interagency coordination.
A day earlier, President Park Geun-hye visited the scene and pledged that the government would do whatever it could to rescue the missing passengers.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com