SEOUL – The recovery of a body from South Korea’s ferry disaster some distance from the submerged vessel fuelled concerns on Thursday that many among the scores still missing may never be found.
More than two weeks after the 6,825-tonne Sewol capsized and sank, 213 people have been confirmed dead but 89 remain unaccounted for, much to the frustration and anger of the victims' families. A fishing boat pulled a body from the sea about two kilometers away from the main recovery site off the southern island of Jindo.
“This made us even more aware of the importance of preventing the loss of victims’ bodies,” Park Seung-Ki, spokesman for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, told reporters. Recovery workers put a ring of netting around the site days ago, but there are concerns that powerful currents in the area may have pulled some bodies into the open sea.
The relatives of those still missing are insisting that all the bodies are recovered before efforts begin to raise the sunken ferry. But the dive teams, working in challenging and sometimes hazardous conditions, have yet to access 22 of the ship's 66 passenger cabins in their grim search. The Sewol capsized on April 16 with 476 people on board – more than 300 of them from the same high school in Ansan city, just south of Seoul.
A group of 160 relatives whose children's bodies have been recovered left Ansan for Jindo on Thursday, to show support for those still waiting for their loved ones' remains to be retrieved. It has become one of South Korea's worst peacetime disasters, and the tragic death of so many young students has fuelled the need to apportion blame and hold those responsible to account.
The captain and 14 of his crew have been arrested, and the ferry owners have become the focus of an ever-widening probe, but much of the public criticism has been directed at the government. The general consensus is that lax safety standards and collusion between industry and regulators were partly to blame for the scale of the disaster, while officials have also been blamed for the initially slow rescue response.
The Sewol's regular captain, who was off duty on the day of the accident, has told prosecutors that the ferry operator – Chonghaejin Marine Co – brushed aside repeated warnings that the 20-year-old ship had stability issues following a renovation in 2012. The precise cause of the accident is still under investigation, but experts have suggested a sharp turn may have caused its cargo to shift, and the ferry to list irretrievably to one side before capsizing.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jong-Jin said two Chonghaejin Marine officials had been questioned extensively Wednesday over allegations that the Sewol was carrying three times its recommended cargo weight. President Park Geun-Hye apologised on Tuesday for her government's failure to combat systemic and regulatory evils that may have contributed to the accident and for the insufficient first response.