Vessels involved in salvage operations are seen near the
upturned Sewol ferry. REUTERS/Issei Kato
Rescuers are struggling with strong waves and murky
waters as they searched for hundreds of people, most of them
teenagers from the same school, still missing after a South
Korean ferry capsized.
Coastguard, navy and private divers scoured the site of the
accident, about 20 km (12 miles) off the country's
Earlier, rescue teams hammered on the hull of the upturned,
mostly submerged vessel, hoping for a response from anyone
trapped inside, but they heard nothing, local media reported.
The vessel, carrying 475 passengers and crew, capsized on
Wednesday (local time) during a journey from the port of
Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju.
Coastguards recovered five more bodies late on Thursday,
raising the death toll to 14 people. Another 179 passengers
have been rescued, leaving 282 unaccounted for and possibly
trapped in the vessel.
One parent, Park Yung-suk, told Reuters at the port of Jindo,
where rescue efforts are centred, that she had seen the body
of her teenage daughter's teacher brought ashore.
"If I could teach myself to dive, I would jump in the water
and try to find my daughter," she said. Her daughter was one
of 340 children and teachers from the Danwon High School in
Ansan, a Seoul suburb, on board the vessel.
The captain of the ship, Lee Joon-seok, 69, faces a criminal
investigation, coastguard officials said, amid unconfirmed
reports that he was one of the first to jump to safety from
the stricken vessel.
One official said authorities were investigating whether the
captain had indeed abandoned the vessel early and one of the
charges he faced was violating a law that governs the conduct
of shipping crew.
SHALLOW WATERS, BUT DANGEROUS
Many survivors told local media that Lee was one of the first
to be rescued, although none actually saw him leave the ship.
The coastguard and the ferry operator declined comment.
Although the water at the site of the accident is relatively
shallow at under 50 metres (165 feet), it is still dangerous
for the 150 or so divers working flat out, experts said. Time
was running out to find any survivors trapped inside, they
"The chances of finding people in there (alive) 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."
The government said it was not giving up on the possibility
of finding survivors, while the coastguard also turned its
attention to what may have caused the disaster in calm seas.
"Today, we began looking into the cause of the submersion and
sinking ... focusing on any questions about crew negligence,
problems with cargo holding and structural defects of the
vessel," senior coast guard official Kim Soo-hyun said.
There has been no official explanation for the sinking,
although officials denied reports the ship, built in Japan 20
years ago, was sharply off its authorised route.
Although the wider area has rock hazards and shallow waters,
they were not in the immediate vicinity of its usual path.
The ferry was found to have three safety deficiencies in
2012, including one related to navigation, but passed
subsequent safety checks in 2013 and 2014, according to
international and Korean shipping records.
The ferry's capacity was increased to more than 900 people
from 800 when it was imported from Japan in late 2012,
shipping sources said, but the expansion passed all safety
tests. The ship, its passengers and cargoes are all under two
separate insurances, according to industry sources.
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
The vessel was listing heavily to one side on Wednesday as
passengers wearing life jackets scrambled into the sea and
waiting rescue boats.
It sank within about two hours and witnesses and media showed
that two life rafts from the ship successfully inflated and
launched. Earlier reports said just one had inflated.
The operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, based in Incheon,
came under sharp criticism after its officials, for the
second day, avoided many questions posed about the conduct of
the captain and crew.
The unlisted operator, which owns four other vessels,
reported an operating loss of 785 million won ($756,000) last
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, told
Among those on the ship were two Chinese citizens, according
to Chinese media, one Russian and two Filipinos. The
Philippines citizens were safe, according to Korean
authorities, but the whereabouts of the others were not
Hope rests on whether passengers inside had been able to find
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."