Coastguard, navy and some private divers were operating in waters
at the site of the accident, about 20 km (12 miles) off the
country's southwestern coast. Earlier, rescue teams hammered on the
hull of the upturned vessel, hoping for a response from anyone
trapped inside, but did not hear anything, media said.
The vessel, carrying 475 passengers and crew, capsized on Wednesday
during a journey from the port of Incheon to the holiday island of
Jeju. Nine people were found dead and 179 were rescued, according to
the South Korean government, leaving 287 unaccounted for and
possibly still trapped in the vessel.
One parent, Park Yung-suk, told Reuters at the port of Jindo, where
rescue efforts are centered, that she had seen the body of her
teenage daughter's teacher brought ashore.
"If I could teach myself to dive, I would jump in the water and try
to find my daughter," she said. Her daughter was one of 340 children
and teachers from the Danwon High School in Ansan, a Seoul suburb,
on board the vessel.
The captain of the ship, Lee Joon-seok, 69, faces a criminal
investigation, a coastguard official said, amid unconfirmed reports
that he was one of the first to jump to safety from the stricken
The official did not elaborate, but media said the captain faced
possible charges of negligence leading to death and violating a law
that governs the conduct of shipping crew.
Many survivors told media Lee was one of the first to be rescued
although no one had actually seen him leave the ship. The coastguard
and the ferry operator declined comment.
Although the water at the site of the accident is relatively shallow
at less than 50 meters (165 feet) depth, it is still highly
dangerous for the 150 or so divers who are working as fast as they
can, experts said. Time was running out to find any survivors who
may be trapped inside, they said.
"The chances of finding people in there are not zero," said David
Jardine-Smith, secretary of the International Maritime Rescue
Federation, adding however, that conditions were extremely difficult.
"There is a lot of water current and silt in the water, which means
visibility is very poor and the divers are basically feeling their
The government said it was not giving up on the possibility of
"We carried out underwater searches five times from midnight until
early in the morning, but the strong currents and murky waters pose
big obstacles," Kang Byung-kyu, a minister for public security, told
a news conference in the capital, Seoul.
There is no official explanation for the sinking, although the
government has launched a formal inquiry. The ship, built in Japan
20 years ago, was following a well traveled route. Although the
wider area has rock hazards and shallow waters, they were not in the
immediate vicinity of its usual path.
[to top of second column]
The ferry was found to have three safety deficiencies in 2012,
including one related to navigation, but passed subsequent safety
checks in 2013 and 2014, according to international and Korean
The ferry's capacity was increased to more than 900 people from 800
when it was imported from Japan in late 2012, shipping sources said,
but the expansion passed all safety tests. The ship, its passengers
and cargoes are all under two separate insurances, industry sources
State broadcaster YTN quoted investigation officials as
saying the ship was off its usual course and had been hit by a
veering wind which caused containers stacked on deck to shift.
The vessel was listing heavily to one side on Wednesday as
passengers wearing life jackets scrambled into the sea and waiting
rescue boats, according to television footage.
It sank in about two hours and witnesses and media showed that just
two life rafts from the ship successfully inflated and launched.
Earlier reports said just one had inflated.
The operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, based in Incheon, issued a
brief statement via media apologizing for the accident but has made
no further comment. The unlisted operator, which owns four other
vessels, reported an operating loss of 785 million won ($756,000)
A company called Web Solus is providing an underwater drone free of
charge to examine the interior of the vessel where survivors could
"Families and rescuers have been just looking at the surface of the
sea. We have to move fast and at least see some of the vessel under
the water," Ko Se-jin, the operator, told Reuters.
Among those on the ship were two Chinese citizens, according to
Chinese media, one Russian and two Filipinos. The Philippines
citizens were safe, according to Korean authorities, but the
whereabouts of the others were not known.
Hope rests on whether the passengers inside would have been able to
find air pockets, Jardine-Smith, the rescue expert, said. "It is not
impossible that people have survived, but, tragically, it's very
unlikely that many will have done."
($1 = 1037.6500 Korean
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Ju-Min Park, Choonsik Yoo,
Meeyoung Cho, Kahyun Kang and James Pearson in Seoul, Jungmin Jang
in Mokpo, South Korea, and Jonathan Saul in London; writing by Raju
Gopalakrishnan; editing by Robert Birsel)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.