JINDO: Divers battled strong currents and near zero visibility on Friday to finally enter a South Korean ferry two days after it sank, as investigators sought arrest warrants against the captain and two of his crew.
The breakthrough by dive teams came more than 48 hours after the 6,825-tonne Sewol capsized — a delay that has incensed the relatives of the 268 people still missing from the disaster. The unfolding tragedy was compounded by the apparent suicide of a high school vice principal who had been rescued from the 6,825-tonne Sewol that sank Wednesday morning with hundreds of his students trapped inside. After several attempts, two divers managed to pry open a door and enter the cargo section on Friday afternoon, a senior coastguard official said.
Hours later another two-man team accessed one of the cabins, but found nothing. “The search operation will continue through the night,” the official said.
The confirmed death toll stood at 28, but the focus of concern remained on the 268 still unaccounted for and slim hopes that some may have survived in air pockets in the submerged vessel. “Visibility is almost non-existent. You can hardly see your hand in front of you face,” said one diver when he returned to the harbour at nearby Jindo island. The coastguard said a joint investigation team of police and prosecutors had applied for arrest warrants for captain Lee Joon-Seok, 52, and two crew.
The charges were not specified. Earlier, prosecutors said preliminary investigations showed Lee had handed the helm to his third officer before the ferry capsized.
Of the 475 people on board when the Sewol capsized, only 179 were rescued and no new survivors have been found since Wednesday. Three giant, floating cranes reached the rescue site, but regional coastguard commander Kim Soo-Hyun stressed they would not begin lifting the multi-deck ferry until they were sure there were no survivors inside. “I want to be clear: There won’t be any salvage work done against the will of the families,” Kim aid. More than 350 of those on board were from the Danwon High School in Ansan city just south of Seoul. Among the parents of those students still missing there was bitter resentment at what they saw as the inadequacy of the official response.
“It’s been two days but no one has been brought out alive,” complained Lee Yong-Gi, whose son was among the missing students. “I firmly believe that the kids are alive. We need to rescue them as soon as possible. But officials are dragging their feet,” Lee told AFP.
Local police said they found the body Friday of Danwon High School vice-principal, Kang Min-Kyu, who had managed to escape the Sewol as it sank.
Police said the cause of death was under investigation, but sources cited by local media said he was found hanging by his belt from a tree next to the gymnasium. Captain Lee and his 28 crew, most of whom survived the disaster, have been heavily criticised amid reports that they were among the first to abandon ship. “The captain was not in command when the accident took place,” prosecutor Park Jae-Eok told a press briefing.
“It was the third officer who was steering the ship,” he said.
The captain had apologised Thursday to the victims and their relatives, but offered no clear explanation for what caused the Sewol to capsize.
Tracking data from the Maritime Ministry showed that the ferry made a sharp turn just before sending its first distress signal. Some experts believe a tight turn could have dislodged the heavy cargo manifest — including more than 150 vehicles — and destabilised the vessel, causing it to list heavily and then capsize. But others suggested the turn might have been caused by a collision with a rock or other submerged object.
Chief prosecutor Lee Seong-Yoon stressed there was “no limit” to the range of the investigation. “We will make sure... those responsible are sternly held accountable,” Lee said.
As well as the cause of the disaster, investigators will be looking at why passengers were ordered to stay in their cabins and seats for up to 40 minutes after the ferry ran into trouble.
Furious relatives believe many more people would have escaped if they had reached evacuation points before the ship listed sharply and water started flooding in.
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