World

Sunken ferry recovery operation temporarily halted

Chang Won-Lim

Bad weather has forced authorities to temporarily call off the search for more than 100 bodies from a capsized South Korean ferry.

More than 100 people are still missing a week after the Sewol capsized off South Korea's coast. (AFP)

Concerns are growing among anguished families that the bodies of those who died in the sinking of a South Korean ferry may never be found, as search teams suspended work on Saturday because of bad weather.

A looming storm and high tides put a temporary halt to operations to recover the remains of more than 100 people still missing over a week after the huge ferry capsized.

"Over the weekend, strong wind and rain is expected in the Jindo area", a coastguard spokesman told journalists.

"As efforts to find the missing people are becoming protracted, there are growing concerns among their families that bodies might be lost for good", he said.

The confirmed death toll stood Saturday at 187, with 115 unaccounted for. Many bodies are believed to be trapped in the ferry that capsized on April 16 with 476 people on board.

At least 325 of the passengers on the 6 825 tonne Sewol were high school students when it sank off South Korea's south-western coastline. About 250 of the learners are either confirmed or presumed dead.

Although all hope of finding survivors has been extinguished, there is still anger and deep frustration among relatives of the missing over the pace of the recovery operation.

Poor conditions
Frogmen have battled strong currents, poor visibility and blockages caused by floating furniture as they have tried to get inside the upturned vessel, which rests on a silty seabed.

The challenging conditions have meant divers are unable to spend more than a few minutes in the ship each time they go down.

Even so, they are coming across horrifying scenes in the murky water, including one dormitory room - that would normally have held around 31 people - packed with the bodies of 48 students wearing lifejackets.

Around a quarter of the 187 bodies recovered so far have been found in waters outside the sunken vessel, and there are fears that some of the missing may have drifted free from the wreck.

The gathering storm was intensifying worries that remains could be scattered when the sea is churned by strong winds.

Authorities are wary of the palpable anger among relatives and have mobilised eight trawlers. They have also installed 13-kilometre-long nets anchored to the seabed across the Maenggol sea channel to prevent the dead being swept into the open ocean.

Dozens of other vessels, including navy ships as well as helicopters, have also been scouring the site and beyond.

Three fisheries patrol vessels were being pressed into the search operation, expanding the hunt up to 60 km from the scene of the disaster.

Police and local government officials will also be mobilised to scour coastal areas and nearby islands, a coastguard official said.

Autopsies
Furious families demanded a meeting with Choi Sang-Hwan, deputy head of the Korea Coastguard, near the pier in Jindo Port, urging him to send the divers back into the water.

"We are waiting for the right moment as conditions in the sea are not favourable," said Choi.

Choi was physically attacked by angry parents on Thursday, a victim of the febrile atmosphere surrounding the tragedy, which has already seen multiple arrests and bitter recriminations.

It took divers working in difficult and dangerous conditions more than two days to get into the sunken ferry and two more days to retrieve the first bodies.

Many relatives believe some of the victims may have survived for several days in trapped air pockets, but perished in the cold water after no rescue came.

As a result some have asked for autopsies to be performed, to see if it would be possible to determine the precise cause and time of death.

The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-Seok, and 10 crew members have been arrested on charges ranging from criminal negligence to abandoning passengers.

The captain has been particularly criticised for delaying the evacuation order until the ferry was listing so sharply that escape was almost impossible.

Prosecutors have raided a host of businesses affiliated with the ferry operator, the Chonghaejin Marine Company, as part of an overall probe into corrupt management.

As part of their widening investigation, prosecutors issued travel bans on Friday on eight current and former executives of the Korea Register of Shipping, the body responsible for issuing marine safety certificates. –Sapa-AFP

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