South Korean coastguard and navy divers fought rising winds, strong waves and murky waters on Thursday as they resumed searching on Thursday for about 290 people still missing, many of them students from the same high school, following the sinking of a ferry more than 24 hours ago.
Coastguard, navy and some private divers were operating in waters at the site of the accident, about 20 kilometres off the country’s southwestern coast. Earlier, rescue teams hammered on the hull of the upturned vessel, hoping for a response from anyone trapped inside, but did not hear anything, media reports said.
Grieving family members gathered on the quay of the coastal city of Jindo, huddled in blankets against the spring cold as efforts to locate the missing went into a second day, with the official death toll standing at nine.
“I am really angry with the government,” said Kwak Hyun-ok, whose daughter who was one of 340 children and teachers from one school on the vessel. There is no meaning to life without my daughter,” Kwak told reporters.
The government said three cranes were being moved to the site of the accident and would arrive on Friday, and efforts were continuing to establish whether there were any survivors on the stricken vessel.
“We carried out underwater searches five times from midnight until early in the morning, but the strong currents and murky waters pose big obstacles,” Kang Byung-kyu, a minister for public security, told a news conference in the capital Seoul.
There is still no official explanation for the sinking, although the government has launched a formal inquiry. The ship, built in Japan 20 years ago, was following a well travelled route. Although the wider area has rock hazards and shallow waters, they were not in the immediate vicinity of its usual path.
State broadcaster YTN quoted investigation officials as saying the ship was off its usual course and had been hit by a veering wind which caused containers stacked on deck to shift
The Chinese embassy in Seoul said Chinese nationals had been onboard the boat, although it is unclear whether they were among the passengers rescued or remain trapped on the ferry, Xinhua reported.
A Chinese women surnamed Han told Xinhua that her sister, 38, and a 39-year-old Chinese man were among those missing.
Showing a picture of her sister and her companion with the sea scene as background, the woman said it was taken on the ferry when they were on their way to Jeju island for vacation.
Nine people, including three students and two teachers, were confirmed dead, but many expect a sharp jump in that number because the missing have now spent more than a day either trapped in the ferry or in the cold seawater.
Coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said the ferry's captain was being questioned about the sinking, but declined to provide details or speculate on the cause.
A man identified by Yonhap news agency and broadcaster YTN as the captain, 60-year-old Lee Joon-seok, said in brief comments broadcast on television: "I am really sorry and deeply ashamed. I don't know what to say."
When asked why he had left the sinking ship, he remained silent.
Reports earlier stated that a parent had received a text message from a student supposedly trapped in an air pocket in the boat. The report was later withdrawn by Reuters news agency, who said the parent had said he had not actually seen the message, but was told about it by someone else.
Watch: Fears grow for hundreds missing in S. Korea ferry capsize
About 290 of the 475 passengers onboard the Sewol ferry remain unaccounted for following the capsize in mysterious circumstances as it made the trip from the port city of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju.
Many of the passengers were school children from a high school on the outskirts of Seoul.
Grieving family members gathered early on Thursday on the quay of the coastal city of Jindo, huddled in blankets against the spring cold as efforts to find the missing went into a second day.
Relatives of the three dead students wailed and sobbed as ambulances at a hospital in Mokpo took the bodies to Ansan. The families, who spent a mostly sleepless night at the hospital, followed the ambulances in their own cars.
The family of one of the victims, 24-year-old teacher Choi Hye-jung, spoke about a young woman who loved to boast of how her students would come to her office and give her hugs.
“She was very active and wanted to be a good leader,” her father, Choi Jae-kyu, 53, said at Mokpo Jung-Ang Hospital while waiting for the arrival of his daughter’s body. Choi’s mother, sitting on a bench at the hospital, sobbed quietly with her head bent down to her knees.
One parent, Park Yung-suk, said she had seen the body of her teenage daughter’s teacher brought ashore earlier in the morning.
"If I could teach myself to dive, I would jump in the water and try to find my daughter," Park said as light rain fell.
As coastguard officials arrived at Jindo on Thursday, waiting relatives jeered at them, shouting: "The weather’s nice, why aren’t you starting the rescue."
Naval and coastguard vessels used floodlights and flares to keep the search operation going through the night, but strong currents and low visibility hampered efforts by diving teams to access the submerged vessel.
“They were unable to enter any of the cabins,” one senior coastguard official said.
Some relatives of the missing were outraged by survivor testimony that passengers had been told not
to move in the crucial period after the ferry stopped and before it listed sharply to the side.
Passenger Kim Seong-mok told broadcaster YTN that after having breakfast, he felt the ferry tilt and then heard it crash into something. He said he was certain that many people were trapped inside the ferry as water rushed in and the severe tilt of the vessel kept them from reaching the exits.
Koo said many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break.
“The rescue wasn’t done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time,” Koo, who was on a business trip to Jeju with a co-worker, said from a hospital bed in Mokpo, the nearest major city to the site of the accident, said.
“If people had jumped into the water... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out.”
A rescued student said: “We must have waited 30 to 40 minutes after the crew told us to stay put. Then everything tilted over and everyone started screaming and scrambling to get out."
The relatively shallow waters of less than 50 metres were highly dangerous for the 150 or so divers even under the best of weather conditions and time was running out quickly to find any survivors who may be trapped inside.
“The chances of finding people in there are not zero,” said David Jardine-Smith, secretary of the International Maritime Rescue Federation, adding however that conditions were extremely difficult.
“There is a lot of water current and silt in the water which means visibility is very poor and the divers are basically feeling their way around,” he said.
Nautical charts of the wider area show reefs and shallow waters, although one government official appeared to discount the possibility the 6825-tonne ship had hit a rock.
It was not immediately clear why the Sewol ferry had listed heavily onto its side in apparently calm waters off South Korea’s southwest coast, but some survivors spoke of a loud noise prior to the disaster.
There were reports of the ferry having veered off course, but co-ordinates of the site of the accident provided by port authorities indicated it was not far off the regular shipping lane.
The ferry sent a distress signal early on Wednesday, the coastguard said, triggering a rescue operation that involved almost 100 coastguard and navy vessels and fishing boats, as well as 18 helicopters.
According to public shipping databases, the registered owner of the ship is Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, based in Incheon.
In a statement read out to local media, a company official offered an apology over the accident but declined to comment further.
The databases showed that Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd became the owner of the vessel in October, 2012.
President Park Geun-Hye voiced shock and pain at “tragic accident”, especially with so many children on board.
“Please do not give up until the very last moment,” she said during a visit to the national disaster agency’s situation room in Seoul.
The US 7th Fleet sent an amphibious assault ship on patrol in the area to help, while White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington was ready to provide its ally with “any assistance” needed.
A company called Web Solus is providing an underwater drone free of charge to examine the interior of the vessel where survivors could be located.
“Families and rescuers have been just looking at the surface of the sea. We have to move fast and at least see some of the vessel under the water,” Ko Se-jin, the operator said.
What little hope now rests on whether the passengers inside would have been able to find themselves to air pockets, Jardine-Smith, the rescue expert said. “It is not impossible that people have survived, but, tragically, it’s very unlikely that many will have done.”