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Divers feel with their hands for corpses in depths of S.Korean ferry

Source: Reuters - Wed, 23 Apr 2014 04:02 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Adds raid; Seafarers' Act, quotes)

By Jungmin Jang and Ju-min Park

MOKPO/SEOUL, April 23 (Reuters) - South Korean divers swam though dark, cold waters into a sunken ferry on Wednesday, feeling for children's bodies with their hands in a maze of cabins, corridors and upturned decks as they searched for hundreds of missing.

The divers, with oxygen and communications lines trailing, can only see a few inches in front of them in the wreckage of the ship that started sinking a week ago after a sharp turn. Most of the victims were high school children, who were told to stay where they were for their own safety and were trapped.

"We are trained for hostile environments, but it's hard to be brave when we meet bodies in dark water," diver Hwang Dae-sik told Reuters, as the funerals of 25 students were held near the capital, Seoul.

Prosecutors investigating the disaster said they raided the home of Yoo Byung-un, the head of a family that owns the Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, the company that operated the Sewol ferry. They also raided his son's home and the office of a church with which Yoo is associated, said a prosecutor who did not want to be identified..

The finances of Chonghaejin and its complex share structure have come into the spotlight in recent days. Yoo was jailed for fraud for four years in the early 1990s.

Underwater, at the site of the sunken Sewol, divers can work for nearly an hour at a time as long as the oxygen lines do not snag on sharp corners of the ship's internal structure. When they use cumbersome oxygen tanks on their backs instead, they can work for about 20 minutes before an alarm bell sounds.

The Sewol sank last Wednesday on a routine trip from the port of Incheon, near Seoul, to the southern island of Jeju.

Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers on a high school outing. Only 174 people have been rescued and the remainder are presumed to have drowned.

The confirmed death toll on Wednesday was 146, many found at the back of the ship on the fourth deck.

Hwang said his team had retrieved 14 bodies so far. "We have to touch everything with our hands. This is the most gruelling and heartbreaking job of my career," he said.

Captain Lee Joon-seok, 69, and other crew members have been arrested on negligence charges. Lee was also charged with undertaking an "excessive change of course without slowing down".

LAW REQUIRES CAPTAIN TO STAY ON BOARD

Several crew members, including the captain, left the ferry as it was sinking, witnesses have said, after passengers were told to stay in their cabins. President Park Geun-hye said on Monday that instruction was tantamount to an "act of murder".

According to Article 10 of Seafarers' Act, a captain has to remain on board until all passengers have disembarked.

A boy with a shaking voice gave the first distress call to the emergency services when the ferry listed.

Most of those who survived made it out on deck and jumped into rescue boats, but many of the children did not leave their cabins, not questioning their elders as is customary in hierarchical Korean society. They paid for their obedience with their lives.

Lee was not on the bridge when the ship turned. Navigation was in the hands of a 26-year old third mate who was in charge for the first time on that part of the journey, according to crew members.

The wife of one crew member under investigation who did not wish to be identified quoted her husband as saying: "I should have died out there."

"He told me that he was taking some rest as he had finished his shift. He fell from his bed and struggled to open the room door to get out. He said he didn't go to the steering house to meet up with rest of the crew. Rather he was found by coastguards and was rescued.

"My husband didn't get along with other crewmen, but he told me that Captain Lee was someone comfortable and extremely calm. He said Captain Lee was like no other: he didn't drink much, although he did smoke."

In a confused exchange between the sinking Sewol and maritime traffic control released by the government, the crew said the ship was listing to port.

"Make passengers wear life jackets and get ready in case you need to abandon ship," traffic control said.

The Sewol answered: "It's difficult for the passengers to move now."

Hwang stressed the danger of the job of searching for corpses in such tight confines.

"It threatens health and safety," he said. "But we are trying really hard. The entire nation is worried."

(Additional reporting by Narae Kim; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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