South Korea ferry disaster: Families watch as remains of Sewol victims returned to shore


Donald Kirk
Monday 21 April 2014 09:56

The mother and her sister burst into hysterics, leaping up from the mat on which they had been resting on the floor of the gymnasium, where hundreds of people wait for news of loved ones trapped aboard the sunken ferry boat.

The two of them had just seen on the large TV screen on the stage above the gymnasium floor a photograph of the boy whom they last saw alive boarding the ferry Sewol at the west coast port of Incheon five days earlier for a holiday cruise to the resort island of Jeju.

In vain a volunteer tried to comfort them as they ran out, jumping into a bus for the 20-minute ride to the docks where a double row of policemen had escorted their son’s body, wrapped in a white rubber body bag, from the coastguard vessel to which divers had transferred it after finding it in the depths of the ferry.

No matter how resigned the relatives are to the fates of sons and daughters, they cannot overcome the horror of the finality of confirmation of death in the frantic moments as the Sewol sank 12 miles off the coast of this community of rolling farmland and comfortable homes and shops beside a seascape of small islands extending to the horizon. All day long on a glorious Easter Sunday, as priests and pastors prayed for the souls of the departed in cathedrals and churches around the country – about one-third of victims are Christian – parents and relatives waited stoically, exchanging words of consolation, and waiting.

By nightfall, teams of divers, searching room by room on the capsized vessel, making their way up and down inverted stairwells and upside-down corridors and cabins, had picked up several dozen bodies, in addition to those found earlier floating in the rough seas. The divers finally cracked a window and got into the vessel early yesterday.

In the grim quest, they were searching day and night for upwards of 200 more bodies – a dangerous task in swift currents as they made their way through murky waters, grasping ropes to show them the way, trailing oxygen hoses, each diver able to stay in the ship for no more than 15 minutes at a time.

As recovery of the bodies quickened with virtually no chance of finding anyone struggling for life in an air pocket, the investigation of what happened has also gained speed. In addition to the captain and two other ship’s officers already under arrest and charged with numerous crimes, including abandonment of the ship, two dozen other crew members and owners and executives of the company that owns the ship are being interrogated.

As all of them were banned from leaving the country, more arrests are expected on still more charges.

The critical question still unanswered is why the captain, Lee Jeon-seok, was not on the bridge, having left the steering of the ship through the treacherous waters to an untested third mate, who was 26 years old. He is alleged to have turned the vessel sharply after hitting a rock or reef causing 180 trucks and cars and 1,000 cargo containers on the bottom deck to slide  to one side.

It was up to Mr Lee to decide “how best to evacuate passengers” and to “make the final decision as to whether to evacuate,” as revealed in a transcript of messages between him and harbour control, which was released on Sunday.

Mr Lee at first told all the passengers to stay where they were, in the hallways and state rooms; he then urged them to jump overboard if they had to. Some passengers were winched off the ship by helicopter before the vessel turned completely on its side.

As hope disappeared for the rescue of any of those left behind, parents and relatives vented their anger yesterday on the streets of this town. Some demanded authorities put them on buses back to Seoul where they said they wanted to present their protests personally to President Park Geun-hye.

Lines of policemen formed to keep several hundred of them from swarming on to the highway leading out of the town. “Bring us back our children,” women shouted as officials and coastguard officers tried to calm them down. “Bring us the bodies,” shouted another victim’s relative.

A team of civilian and military officials weighed the decision as to when to order five enormous cranes on boats finally to raise the ship from the waters. In discussions with parents, some have pleaded to wait until they’re sure no one is alive.

Others have said it’s already too late and urged the cranes to move the vessel so divers can get in more easily before the bodies decompose.

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