SEOUL – Angry relatives of passengers aboard a sunken South Korean ferry criticized the government's response Thursday as the ship's captain made an emotional apology for fleeing the vessel before hundreds of others had a chance to get out.
As of Thursday afternoon, 287 people remained missing, most of them high school students on a trip. Nine people were confirmed dead and 179 had been rescued. The official death toll was expected to rise significantly in the coming days, as most of the missing are believed to be trapped underwater inside the ship, named the Sewol.
President Park Geun-hye traveled to the site of the sinking, off the nation's southern coast, touring the area by boat and later meeting with families of the passengers. But tempers flared as parents argued for a larger-scale diving operation to find the missing. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won was nearly attacked by grieving families as he arrived on the scene. Photos showed him being shielded from a water bottle that was thrown at him.
The Sewol was en route from Incheon, on the country’s northwest coast, to the resort island of Jeju, when it went down around 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Officials said 500 divers, 169 boats and 29 planes had been mobilized to continue search operations. But poor underwater visibility and strong currents were making it difficult for the divers. "Strong currents and the murky water pose severe obstacles. We will do our best," Minister of Security and Public Administration Kang Byung-kyu said at a Thursday press briefing.
On Thursday afternoon, Park Im-dae decided to take a bus from the Seoul area with her daughter to the nearby port of Jindo, where grief-stricken families had gathered at a gymnasium awaiting news of the missing. She was hoping for information about her nephew, one of the missing high school students.
"We don't know who is dead and who is alive," said Park. "It's too difficult to just wait here and do nothing."
Lee Joon-seok, captain of the Sewol, has been criticized for fleeing the ship before all passengers could evacuate. In a broadcast by South Korea's YTN network, Lee made an emotional apology. "I am really sorry. I don't know what to say," he said while seated in a chair, surrounded by reporters with a hood pulled over his face. He then repeated, "I'm so sorry."
The South Korean coast guard reported that Lee was filling in for the regular captain, who was on vacation.
The ship sent out distress calls in a position east of the normal route from Incheon to Jeju, raising the possibility that the captain had taken a shortcut. The Sewol's departure Tuesday was delayed almost three hours by fog.
"It is possible that the ship changed its course to a different route because it was delayed leaving Incheon," Lee Gyeong-Og, vice minister of Security and Public Administration, said in a press briefing. The company operating the ship, Cheonghaejin Marine Co., has denied changing course.
Rim Gung-su, a professor at Mokpo National Maritime University with more than 30 years of experience as a ship captain, suspects that an abrupt turn may have caused the ferry to turn on its side and sink.
"The ship was moving at full speed, it was very foggy and there were probably a lot of fishing boats around. My theory is that the captain turned suddenly to the right to avoid a boat, which could have caused the cargo to fall over, throwing the Sewol off balance," Rim said.
He also said that cargo on ships is often not securely tied down as many operators seek to cut labor costs. The Sewol, about 480 feet long, can carry up to 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers.
The Sewol was built in 1994 in Japan and was purchased by Cheonghaejin Marine in 2012. After being purchased, the ship was refurbished to increase its capacity. Rim said this would have raised the Sewol's center of gravity and could have made it more vulnerable to tipping over in the event of a shift of weight. The Sewol was fully licensed and operating legally.
Passengers reported hearing a loud noise before the sinking. "At first the ship tilted about 15 degrees and I assumed it was just because of a big wave," passenger Kim Hong-kyung, 58, told the Kyunghyang newspaper. "But then it was only two or three minutes until it shifted to 45 and then 90 degrees."
Survivors told local media that there had been a public address announcement instructing them to stay in their seats as the boat was sinking. Photos showed several lifeboats going unused as the ship went down.