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Asia-pacific

Hundreds still trapped in sunken South Korea ferry

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-04-18

Hopes are fading for the more than 270 passengers who are still missing after a ferry sank off the South Korean coast on Wednesday. So far, 25 people have been confirmed dead.

Coastguard officials say divers have begun pumping air into the vessel, 48 hours after it listed and sank. But it wasn't immediately clear if the air was for survivors or for a salvage operation.

Strong currents and bad weather have so far prevented divers from searching for more than 270 people, many of them schoolchildren, missing since the ferry listed and sank on Wednesday. Officials said Friday in a statement that divers were still trying to enter the ship.

There were fears that it may be too late. Rescue workers found bodies but not survivors on Friday.

The official death toll for the ferry, which capsized on Wednesday carrying 475 passengers and crew on a routine trip from the Korean mainland to the holiday island of Jeju, climbed to 25.

A series of failed and aborted rescue operations only made the wait for family members worse. Hope of finding more survivors appears to be fading.

“My kid is dying out there,” said Christine Kim, whose daughter is amongst the missing.

South Korean officials said strong currents had hampered the rescue operation. One volunteer diver told a South Korean news network that the rescue had been badly organised and that authorities had not given scuba gear or blueprints of the boat to the divers.

A junior officer was at the helm of a South Korean ferry when it capsized and the captain may have been away from the bridge, investigators said on Friday.

The accident happened in calm, shallow waters and investigators have focused on the role of the ship's 69-year old captain and the actions of the crew as the vessel appeared to have a clean safety record.

"He (the captain) may have been off the bridge.. And the person at the helm at the time was the third officer," Park Jae-eok, an official investigating the accident, told a press conference in Mokpo, a city close to the port where rescue operations are being conducted.

Rescuers started pumping oxygen into the Sewol ferry on Friday and three cranes were in transit to the accident site and due to set up later in the day in a bid to salvage the vessel.

Parents of missing schoolchildren blamed the ship's captain for the tragedy after he and shipping company officials made emotional apologies for the loss of life.

Witnesses have said that the captain and some of the crew left the vessel while others instructed passengers to remain in place as it sank in just over two hours some 25 km southwest of Jindo, a large South Korean island connected to the mainland.

Theories about the cause of the accident swirled and investigators declined to comment on reports the vessel had turned before it listed to port and capsized.

Coastguard officials have said the investigation was focused on possible crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and structural defects of the vessel, although the ship appears to have passed all of its safety and insurance checks.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, faces criminal investigation, which is standard procedure in South Korea.

Both 69-year-old Lee and the company that owns the ship have apologised for the loss of life, although neither has admitted responsibility.

Most of those on board were children from a high school in the suburbs of Seoul who were on a field trip to Jeju.

Relatives were in mourning overnight in a hospital in the city of Mokpo, close to the port city of Jindo, which is acting as a rescue centre. Some of them spoke bitterly of the captain.

"How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?" said Ham Young-ho, grandfather of 17-year-old Lee Da-woon, one of the dead.

Lee has not made any public statement on whether or why he may have left the vessel before many of the passengers.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-04-16

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