South Korean ferry disaster: Text messages from children trapped on board are cruel hoax say police as rescue hopes fade

Officials vow to 'hunt down and sternly punish' those responsible

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The Independent Online

This morning, three huge cranes are due to attempt to lift the sunken ferry Sewol from below the sea after divers battled in vain to penetrate its hull and free almost 290 people, mostly schoolchildren. By tonight, little hope remained for finding those trapped alive, as strong winds and heavy currents stymied rescue efforts.

Working through the night, divers placed unmanned robots into the water, directing them to the ship in order to enter doorways or windows which humans could not.

Reports then emerged of text messages purporting to have been sent by those trapped inside the ferry to their loved ones. However, confusion remained over the authenticity of the missives.

“This might be the last chance to say I love you,” one student, named as Shin Young-jin, was reported to have texted his mother. But South Korea’s National Police Agency concluded that none of the trapped passengers had sent text messages and that those said to have done so were not missing. “We will hunt down the people who wrote these messages,” a police official said, vowing to “sternly punish them for hurting the families and causing confusion in the search efforts”.

The sudden precarious tilt of the ship explained why many of the passengers were unable to scramble from the middle deck, where they were told by crew members to wait for lifeboats to take them off. One crew member who escaped explained that he wanted to prevent mass panic among the schoolchildren.


But some of the children, ignoring the instructions, clambered outside as the ship tilted completely to one side and jumped into the water before it capsized north of Byungpoong Island, around 290 miles from Seoul. More than a dozen bodies have been recovered from the water.

Of the 475 passengers and crew members on the ship at the time of the accident, only 179 were rescued and no more rescues appeared likely.

Despite the increasing focus of the operation on recovery rather than rescue, parents waiting at Jindo, the nearest port, were hoping their loved ones were alive in air pockets below deck.

“Bring our children back alive,” several of the parents shouted when South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye visited the scene. “We cannot give up,” Geun-hye said. “We have to do our best to rescue even one passenger.”

The tragedy prompted accusations of multiple failures, ranging from the inexperience of the crew in rescue operations to the flight of the captain and most of the crew while many others were hopelessly trapped. The ship disappeared from view almost two and a half hours after scraping against what is presumed to be a rock or rocky reef.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, was said to have apologised on television.

“I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” he reportedly said. “I don’t know what to say.”

Against the background of grief, the reports of text messages increasingly appeared to have been a cruel hoax. One student was said to have texted his mother, “Mom, I love you,” while another told her father, “Dad, don’t worry, I’ve got a life vest on, we’re huddled together.”

He was said to have responded: “I know the rescue is under way, make your way out if you can.”

She then was said to have texted back, “Dad, I can’t walk out. The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted.”

Those words, at least, appeared correct.