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Anger boils in search for missing Evacuations came too late for many on ferry

JINDO, South Korea, April 17, (Agencies): Emotions boiled over Thursday in the frantic search for almost 300 people — mostly schoolchildren — missing from a capsized South Korean ferry, with angry parents confronting President Park Geun-Hye as prospects dwindled of finding survivors. Worsening weather fuelled the sombre mood, with persistent rain and choppy seas hindering dive teams already struggling with low visibility and strong currents.

Twenty-five people were confirmed dead, the coastguard said late Thursday, as rescuers battled high waves and recovered more bodies. But with every hour that passed fears mounted for the 271 still unaccounted for after the multi-deck vessel with 475 on board suddenly listed, capsized and then sank within the space of 90 minutes on Wednesday morning. “Honestly, I think the chances of finding anyone alive are close to zero,” a coastguard official told an AFP journalist on one of the boats at the site.

The coastguard said more than 500 divers, 169 vessels and 29 aircraft were now involved in the rescue operation. But distraught relatives gathered in a gymnasium on nearby Jindo island insisted more should be done, and vented their frustration when President Park came to inspect the rescue effort. “What are you doing when people are dying? Time is running out!” one woman screamed as Park tried to address the volatile crowd with her security detail standing by nervously. A total of 375 high school students were on board, travelling with their teachers to the popular island resort of Jeju.

When Prime Minister Chung Hong- Won visited the gymnasium earlier in the day, he was jostled and shouted at, and water bottles were thrown. “Don’t run away, Mr. Prime Minister!” one mother said, blocking Chung as he tried to leave. “Please tell us what you’re planning to do.” The coastguard said 179 people had been rescued.

The tragedy has stunned a country whose rapid modernisation was thought to have consigned such large-scale accidents to the past. If the missing are confirmed dead it would become one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters — all the more traumatic for the number of children involved. It was still unclear what caused the 6,825-tonne Sewol to sink. Numerous passengers spoke of a loud thud and the vessel coming to an abrupt, shuddering halt — suggesting it had run aground or hit a submerged object.

But the captain, Lee Joon-Seok, who survived and was being questioned by investigators, insisted it had not hit any rocks. Pulling a hood over his head and face as he was surrounded by camera crews in the coastguard offices, Lee mumbled an apology. “I feel really sorry for the passengers, victims and families,” he said. Other experts suggested the ferry cargo, which included 150 cars, might have suddenly shifted, irretrievably destabilising the vessel. Distressing mobile phone footage taken by one survivor showed the panic on board with one woman desperately screaming “The water’s coming, the water’s coming!” There was growing public anger over multiple survivor testimony that passengers had been ordered to stay in their seats and cabins when the ferry first foundered. An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank off South Korea’s southern coast, likely with scores of people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos, a crew member said Thursday. Meanwhile, the coast guard said it was investigating whether the ferry’s captain was one of the first ones off the sinking ship. The first instructions from the captain were for the passengers to put on life jackets and stay put, and it was not until about 30 minutes later that he ordered an evacuation, Oh Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member, told The Associated Press. But Oh said he wasn’t sure if the captain’s order, given to crew members, was actually relayed to passengers on the public address system.

Several survivors also told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order. The loss of that precious time may have deprived many passengers of the opportunity to escape as the Sewol sank Wednesday, not far from the southern city of Mokpo. Oh, a helmsman on the ferry with 10 years’ shipping experience, said that when the crew gathered on the bridge and sent a distress call the ship was already listing more than 5 degrees, the critical angle at which the ship can be brought back to even keel. At about that time, a third mate reported that the ship could not be righted, and the captain ordered another attempt, which also failed, Oh said. A crew member then tried to reach a lifeboat but tripped because the vessel was tilting, prompting the first mate to suggest to the captain that everyone should evacuate, Oh said. The captain agreed and ordered an evacuation, but Oh said that amid the confusion and chaos on the bridge he does not recall the message being conveyed on the public address system. By then it was impossible for crew members to move to passengers’ rooms to help them because the ship was tilted at an impossibly acute angle, he said. The delay in evacuation also likely prevented lifeboats from being deployed. “We couldn’t even move one step. The slope was too big,” said Oh, who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain. At a briefing, Kim Soo-hyun, a senior coast guard official, told reporters that officials were investigating whether the captain got on the first rescue boat, but didn’t elaborate.

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