(Updates latest death toll in fifth paragraph.)
April 22 (Bloomberg) -- As the official death toll from a South Korean ferry that sank last week grew to more than 100, newspaper editorials suggest the national mood was shifting from grief to outrage at the government’s handling of the tragedy.
“People are descending into a collective sense of powerlessness, unable to trust the government with protecting them in emergency situations,” Chosun Ilbo, the nation’s largest circulation newspaper, said in an editorial headlined: “Emergency headquarters abound, but no real disaster handler.”
“Does President Park finally understand the rage of people who say ‘we can’t trust bureaucrats?’” asked the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper, one of the country’s three biggest and considered supportive of South Korean President Park Geun Hye. Park yesterday called the actions of the ferry’s crew in abandoning passengers on board “like murder.”
The ferry sinking is likely the nation’s worst maritime disaster since 1970, when the ‘Namyoung’ ferry sank, killing 323. South Korea yesterday sacked a ranking official involved in the rescue operation for taking a “commemorative photo” at the site, drawing ire from relatives awaiting news of missing passengers, presidential spokesman Min Kyung Wook told reporters in Seoul.
Divers are finding more bodies after guide ropes were finally snaked into the vessel, aiding the search that’s been hampered by poor visibility and strong currents. Of the 476 people on board, a total of 108 bodies have been found, leaving 194 people still missing a week after 174 passengers and crew were rescued the day of the April 16 sinking.
Many of the bodies found inside the vessel so far have been in the third-level lounge and fourth-level cabins, Ko Myung Suk, director general of equipment and technology bureau at the Korea Coast Guard, said in a televised briefing earlier today. Divers haven’t yet reached the dining hall on the third-level next to the lounge, where many people were thought to be at the time of the incident, Ko said.
Ko didn’t refer to the dining hall in a second briefing in the afternoon, while YTN said divers haven’t been able to enter.
Investigators are focusing on why the vessel turned sharply prior to the incident, with both the third-ranked crew member steering the vessel and a helmsman who was also on the bridge giving different accounts of the incident, prosecutors said. Seven crew members have been arrested, including Captain Lee Joon Seok, 68, who wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the incident and faces five charges including accidental homicide.
Crew members gathered on the bridge after the incident and sounded the distress signal on the captain’s order, one of the arrested crew members told reporters outside the court in Mokpo today. His comments were broadcast on YTN TV. The crew tried to deploy lifeboats and couldn’t because the ship had tilted too far, he said.
“The actions of the captain and some crew members just cannot be understood with common sense. They are like murder and should not be tolerated,” President Park told her senior secretaries yesterday, according to a report of the meeting issued by the presidential office.
The largest group of passengers was the 339 Danwon High School students and teachers on an excursion to Jeju island. Kang Min Kyu, the vice principal in charge of the group and was rescued from the ferry, was found hanged last week.
The sinking occurred in an area known for its strong currents off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. The third-ranked crew member, surnamed Park, hadn’t steered in the area before, prosecutors have said.
Some of the crew members may not have received safety training, prosecutor Ahn Sang Don told reporters in Mokpo yesterday. Investigators are planning to summon about 20 officials from the ferry’s owner and operator Chonghaejin Marine Co. and the company which did expansion work on the vessel for questioning, Ahn said, without naming the company.
The Sewol, which means “Time and Tide” in Korean, passed safety inspections for the expansion after a check between October 2012 and February 2013, according to an official from the Korean Register of Shipping, which conducted the test. The official asked not to be identified, citing company policy.
Chonghaejin Marine had modified the vessel to carry an additional 117 passengers, expanding the total capacity including crew to 956, the Korean Register official said.
--With assistance from Cynthia Kim and Seyoon Kim in Seoul.