By Heesu Lee, Cynthia Kim and Rose Kim
Divers searching the Sewol ferry may not be able to recover every missing body, South Korea’s coast guard said, as thousands of mourners offered prayers for the victims of the nation’s worst maritime disaster since 1970.
The coast guard is still considering ways to try to prevent bodies from being lost from the Sewol, which sunk in an area known for strong currents off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula two weeks ago, coast guard official Ko Myung Suk said in a briefing today in Jindo, near the site of the sinking. The death toll reached 210, leaving 92 people missing.
Public anger has been growing since footage emerged of crew members, including the captain, abandoning the Sewol ahead of passengers, the majority of them students from Danwon High School on a field trip to the resort island of Jeju. Thousands of mourners have been lining up every day at a memorial altar near the school in Ansan, southwest of Seoul.
“I was outraged watching this unfold on television,” 73-year-old Oh Moon Ja said, sobbing after visiting the memorial. “It completely breaks my heart,” she said, carrying a yellow condolence ribbon on which she wrote, ‘Please, President, save these innocent children.’
Only 75 of the 325 Danwon students survived the sinking. Today they visited the Ansan memorial altar, wearing their school uniforms and accompanied by their parents. Most were crying, and like more than 200,000 mourners who visited before them, they carried a white chrysanthemum to place before rows of photographs of the deceased.
Samsung Electronics Co. Vice Chairman Lee Jae Yong, son of South Korea’s richest man Lee Kun Hee, led a group of about 50 Samsung executives to the Ansan memorial this morning. Lee, dressed in a black suit and tie and a condolence ribbon on his lapel, left without talking to reporters.
High School Students
At the school, first and third-graders returned to regular curriculum today. Second-graders, whose classmates were on the ferry, are still receiving counseling and other therapy, according to the Gyeonggi government office of education that oversees the school.
Prosecutors are investigating whether the ferry had enough ballast water in the hull, and whether a failure to have sufficient volume would warrant a charge of accidental homicide against the first mate responsible, prosecutor Yang Joong Jin said today in Mokpo, where the main investigation team is based.
All 15 crew members involved in navigating the Sewol have been arrested. Captain Lee Joon Seok, 68, who wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the incident, the third mate named Park, who was steering the vessel, and a helmsman Cho, who was with Park, face a life sentence on charges including homicide through abandonment and homicide through occupational negligence, prosecutors have said.
Only captain Lee and three other crew members had worked with Chonghaejin Marine Co., the ferry’s owner and operator, for more than a year, prosecutor Ahn Sang Don told reporters today in Mokpo.
The investigation also includes Chonghaejin Marine, its executives and the money flow between its affiliates, the Korea Shipping Association that oversees ferry operators, as well as the coast guard. Chonghaejin Marine chief executive officer Kim Han Shik was questioned by prosecutors in Incheon yesterday, while the owner family led by Yoo Byung Eun are also under investigation, prosecutors have said.
Prosecutors are having difficulty bringing everyone who’s under investigation in for questioning, prosecutor Kim Hoe Jong told reporters today in Incheon. Arrest warrants have been issued for two Chonghaejin Marine officials and one has been arrested, prosecutor Ahn said, without identifying them.
“Yoo and his two sons will cooperate with prosecutors,” their attorney Son Byoung Gi said by phone today. Yoo’s second son, Yoo Hyuk Gi, was today ordered to appear at a prosecutor’s office and he will do so following his return from the U.S., Son said.
From the beginning, investigators have focused on whether the ferry turned too quickly or abnormally, causing it to list, and whether other factors including its cargo volume or expansion work done to increase its capacity contributed to the sinking by making the vessel unstable.
About 90 percent of the cargo carried by the ferry has been confirmed after checks with each owner, including the item specifics, their weight and volume, prosecutor Ahn said on Wednesday.
“Many of those under investigation have testified that the Sewol had a stability problem,” Ahn said yesterday. “We’re investigating how severe it was.”
South Korean President Park Geun Hye yesterday apologized amid mounting criticism of her government’s handling of the incident, as polls showed her approval rating slipping. Prime Minister Chung Hong Won resigned, though he’ll remain in office until the government response to the disaster has concluded.
Park has called the actions of the ferry’s crew in abandoning passengers on board “like murder,” while Justice Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn earlier this week pledged an overhaul of shipping industry regulations.
The official Sewol death toll of 210 will probably rise to 302, as no survivors have been found since 174 of the 476 passengers and crew were rescued on the day of the sinking. Divers have been hampered by poor visibility and strong currents as they search the submerged five-deck Sewol.
It’s Korea’s worst maritime disaster since the ‘Namyoung’ ferry sank in 1970, killing 323. (Bloomberg)