Hopes dim as 297 still missing in ferry disaster

BEIJING (USA TODAY) -- Families of missing passengers showed anger and anguish Thursday as they criticized the South Korean government's handling of the Sewol ferry sinking, while an increasingly anxious search continued for 287 passengers still missing a day after the ferry capsized off the southern coast of South Korea carrying 475 people.

Relatives shouted, jostled and threw water bottles at Prime Minister Chung Hong-won when he visited them early Thursday morning at a gymnasium on Jindo Island, where many families of the passengers have gathered. "How dare you come here with your chin up?" one relative screamed, reported the Korea Herald newspaper. "Would you respond like this if your own child was in that ship?"

One mother stopped Chung from leaving. "Don't run away, Mr. Prime Minister. Please tell us what you're planning to do," she said, according to the Korea Herald.

Nine people, including three students and two teachers, were confirmed dead, but that is expected to rise sharply because the missing have now spent more than a day either trapped in the ferry or in the cold seawater. Meanwhile, survivors complained that onboard announcements telling people to stay inside the boat may have worsened the disaster.

"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," a man identified by broadcaster YTN and Yonhap news agency as the captain, 60-year-old Lee Joon-seok, said in brief comments shown on TV, his face hidden beneath a gray hoodie. "I don't know what to say."

The government is under fire for being unable to provide a definitive passenger total Wednesday and dramatic reductions in the survivor count during the day, said the Yonhap news agency. Survivors also blamed the ship's crew, saying that onboard announcements repeatedly told passengers to stay put even when the ship began tilting, said Yonhap. More people would have survived the disaster if they had been told to evacuate earlier, they said, according to the news agency.

Video clips taken by survivors revealed that the onboard announcements continued to instruct passengers to stay inside, despite the ferry tilting so far that people could not stand properly, said the Korea Herald. "Go inside and wait, as the cabin is safer," a ferry staffer said in an announcement recorded on video by a passenger.

Fog delayed the Sewol, a passenger and car ferry, from leaving Incheon, outside the capital Seoul, Tuesday night. "We're investigating whether the Sewol struck rocks while going off the course recommended by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries to reach Jeju faster because it was about three hours behind schedule due to fog the previous night," the Ministry of Security and Public Administration said, according to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

"A large hole caused by a submerged rock is the most probable reason why enough water poured into the ferry to cause it to capsize," Chung Yong-hyun, at the Korea Diving Industry Institute, told the paper. The ship's captain escaped during the early stage of rescue operations, said Chosun Ilbo.

The boat's destination, Jeju Island, where the students were headed for a four-day school field trip, is a highly popular tourist and honeymoon destination. Its many attractions, including volcanic landscapes, beaches, casinos and golf courses, have also drawn large numbers of Chinese tourists in recent years.

A mainland Chinese couple, headed to Jeju with their car, are among the missing, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported Thursday. The married couple, ethnic Koreans from close to the North Korean border, were a Miss Han, 38, and a Mr Li, 39, reported the Chinese state television channel CCTV.

Some Chinese expressed their sorrow online, and made connections to the missing MH370 plane, which had 153 Chinese citizens on board.

"People from countries which have just experienced missing relatives can best understand and sympathize with the mood of South Korean people," wrote Bai Ming, a government economic researcher, on Sina Weibo Thursday. "I wish more people can be rescued."

A ray of hope may have surfaced Wednesday for the fate of the missing passengers.

The father of one of the missing passengers said he received a text message from his child that said there were still passengers alive on board the boat, Al Jazeera reported.

The text message read, "I am alive, there are students alive, please save us quickly," according to Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera reporter Harry Fawcett, however, said the timing of the text messages was not clear.

Outside of that development, officials appeared to be losing hope.

"I'm afraid there's little chance for those trapped inside still to be alive," rescue official Cho Yang Bok told YTN television.

Survivors plucked from the frigid sea or hoisted from the sinking boat by helicopter crews told of panic as passengers heard a loud bang and then the ship suddenly lurched over, sending furniture and people sliding to the port side.

"As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another," student Lim Hyung Min said, retelling who he and others jumped into the sea in life jackets and swam to a rescue boat.

The water "was so cold. ... I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live," Lim said.

The 480-foot-long ship was authorized to carry more than 900 people and 180 vehicles, according to Korea news media reports.

"There was a bang, and then the ship suddenly tilted over," said a 57-year-old survivor, identified only by the surname Yoo, Yonhap news agency reported.

"Downstairs were restaurants, shops and entertainment rooms, and those who were there are feared to have failed to escape." Anxious relatives waited at Jindo Port, on the island closest to the sunken ferry, where survivors were brought.

Some of those who managed to escape the ship told Korean media that the captain had told passengers to remain where they were, which may have reduced their chances of survival, they said.

"I ran into my room, after I heard the announcement. But things didn't seem right," a female student who jumped into the water told a local TV station, the Korea Timesnewspaper reported.

Passengers on the left side of the ferry who followed the captain's instructions may have been trapped in the sinking ship as it listed, the newspaper said, while those on the right, or starboard, side could crawl out of portholes and jump into the sea or wait for helicopter buckets to be lowered down.

Divers searched three compartments of the ferry, which sank after floating for several hours on its side. About 160 divers searched throughout the night in the hope that passengers may have found pockets of air for breathing inside the sunken ship.

"We cannot give up," said South Korean President Park Geun Hye. "We have to do our best to rescue even one passenger."

The Sewol was three hours from its destination about 9 a.m. Wednesday when it sent a distress call, said the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. The ship was soon surrounded by ships and helicopters and rescuers plucked dazed students, many wearing life jackets, out of the water or off the vessel's side.

Yonhap said 175 people had been rescued before the ship turned belly up and sank. Ships, airplanes and helicopters buzzed around the hull in a continuing search for survivors in the swift-moving, muddy water 12 miles off the island of Byeongpoong.

The U.S. Navy ship Bonhomme Richard, which was in the area on routine patrol, joined the rescue efforts. Arirang TV interviewed several survivors cloaked in blankets who said the sea was calm before the disaster.

"Then all of a sudden, the ship felt like it flipped on its side violently," an elderly man lying on a rescue ship told the station. "People were cornered and they couldn't get out of their cabins because they couldn't open the doors."

A male student said he was yelling for 40 minutes before he was rescued.

"Things were falling and people were sliding down the ship," he said.

At Ansan Danwon High School, students were sent home and parents gathered for news about the ferry. Park Ji Hee, a first-year student, said she saw about a dozen parents crying at the school entrance.Parents clung to cellphones awaiting calls from their children.

Contributing: Associated Press


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