By Dirk Godder
SEOUL, South Korea — Survivors of a capsized South Korean ferry lashed out Thursday at what they called inadequate safety procedures they say likely cost dozens, if not hundreds, of lives.
The accusations — including reports that the captain was among the first to leave the ship and that passengers had been told to stay in their rooms even as the danger became more apparent — came as the death toll rose to 14 and military divers returned to the ship in the hope that some survivors might still be trapped inside.
The ferry sank Wednesday morning with 475 people on board, more than 300 of them students on an outing. So far, only about 180 have been confirmed rescued.
Rescue operations have been made difficult by bad conditions, with the search halted at least once Thursday before resuming in the evening. Ten attempts to enter the ship earlier Thursday failed.
The situation was made more tense with reports of survivors still in the boat sending text messages to loved ones back home. “I’m afraid we’re all going to die,” read one reported by the Yonhap news agency. However, authorities dismissed all such messages as fakes.
Lee Jun Seok, 60, the captain of the ferry was questioned Thursday as a suspect in the fatal incident. There were reports that he could face charges of negligence, though a spokesman for the coast guard would not confirm this.
Lee issued a statement apologizing to the family of the victims and expressing his regret for the incident.
But many family members were in no mood to hear the apologies, especially amid unconfirmed reports that Lee was one of the first to leave the ship and that only one of the ferry’s 46 lifeboats was ever lowered into the water.
Survivors also criticized orders from the crew, telling people not to try to leave the ship for their own safety. That meant many people had no chance to get out once it was clear the Sewol was going down.
“Many of my friends were not able to put on life vests because the water was streaming in too quickly,” high school student Lee Da Woon told local newspaper JoongAng Daily.
A total of 325 of the passengers were students from a suburban Seoul high school on a trip to the resort island of Jeju, about 50 miles south of the mainland.
Security minister Kang Byung Kyu told reporters that the difficult conditions posed “tremendous obstacles” to the rescue effort, Yonhap reported. Underwater visibility was as low as 8 inches, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.
Some 169 boats, 29 aircraft and more than 500 divers were involved in the rescue effort, Yonhap reported.
However, the chances of finding survivors in waters as cold as 54 degrees Fahrenheit were slim, emergency responders were quoted as saying by The Korea Herald newspaper.
The average person could only survive for two to three hours in such temperatures, an expert told state broadcaster Arirang. Survivors would have also needed to find an air bubble in the wreckage.
Only the rump of the ship was still visible above the water. Cranes are to be brought in in the coming days to try to raise it.
The reason for the sinking remained unknown. One theory was that the ferry had struck a rock. Survivors have said they heard a loud noise just before the ship began to go down.
A senior coast guard official, Koh Myung Seok, told reporters the ship had taken a “slightly different path” from a government-recommended route, according to Yonhap.
The ship also made an unexpectedly sharp turn, Yonhap reported coast guard officials as saying.
The crew sent a distress signal at 8:58 a.m. The coast guard said the ship listed to one side and began taking on water. It sank in two hours.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye visited the site of the capsized vessel Thursday, and urged the government to lend all available assistance to the rescue effort. Family members criticized her for only giving a short speech, but she responded by saying that every minute was “critical” for the rescue operations.
In the capital Seoul, political parties suspended their activities as the nation focused on the disaster, Yonhap reported.
Yao Qilin/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT