Korea ferry victims' parents attack Coast Guard official

Posted at 04/25/14 12:34 AM

Angry family members of missing passengers onboard the capsized Sewol ferry drag Choi Sang-hwan, deputy head of the South Korean coast guard (C, in blue), out from his office to demand for faster and more efficient rescue work. Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

SEOUL - Angry parents of victims of South Korea's ferry disaster assaulted a top official on Thursday, accusing him of lying about efforts to retrieve bodies still trapped in the submerged ship.

About 20 relatives of the victims attacked Choi Sang-Hwan, deputy head of the Korea Coastguard, after storming his temporary office at Jindo port, an AFP journalist on the scene said.

They forced their way through some 10 officers blocking the entrance and pounced on Choi as he sat behind a desk, punching him in the face and body.

They then grabbed him by the neck and pulled him out of the office.

Ripping his shirt, they took him to a nearby tent -- calling for his superior Kim Suk-Kyun, the coastguard chief, to meet them there.

The parents held Choi for a while, with some mothers slapping him continuously, until Kim arrived.

Parents then forced the coastguard chiefs to tell their officers by radio to mobilize more divers and speed up efforts to recover bodies.

There is widespread anger among families over the slowness of initial rescue efforts after the ferry sank on April 16 with 476 people on board, most of them high school students.

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.

The confirmed death toll on Thursday stood at 171, but 131 were still missing and believed inside the ship.

Violence broke out Thursday after the relatives went out by boat to inspect operations at the site where the 6,825-tonne Sewol capsized.

"You guys said hundreds of divers were working there, but we only saw a few there today," a mother screamed at Choi.

The parents demanded that closed-circuit TVs be set up for them to watch rescue efforts live.

More than a week after the 6,825 tonne Sewol capsized and sank with 476 people on board, most of them high school students, there is still widespread anger over the pace of the initial rescue effort.

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.

Autopsy queries

"We have received a number of inquiries about autopsies," said a member of the forensic team on Jindo island working on identifying the bodies recovered from the disaster site.

An official responsible for legal and medical issues at the emergency situation desk on Jindo said there was nothing to prevent families having an autopsy carried out.

"But to my knowledge, nobody has so far actually brought a body to the National Forensic Service to have this done," the official said.

The belief that some passengers might have survived the initial capsize was very strong in the days immediately after the Sewol sank on April 16, fueled in part by fake postings on social network sites that claimed to be text messages from passengers begging to be rescued.

Of the 476 people on board, 325 were students from Danwon High School in Ansan city just south of Seoul.

The school, which has remained closed for the past week, resumed classes for its senior class on Thursday.

Kim Hyong-Ki, the spokesman for a representative committee set up by the relatives, confirmed that some parents were pushing for autopsies.

"They want to know for certain how their family members died," Kim said.

"That said, most people oppose it because they can't bear the idea of the bodies being damaged any more.

"My daughter's body is still out there in the sea, but I don't want anyone dissecting it after it is recovered," he said.

Yellow ribbons at the harbor

Hundreds of yellow ribbons were tied Thursday to the guard rail on the quayside of Jindo harbor, some with simple handwritten messages like "I miss you" and "Farewell."

A coastguard official said divers were concentrating on accessing cabins on the third and fourth decks in their grim search for more bodies.

According to the Yonhap news agency, one of the bodies recovered was of a high school student who made the first distress call from the ferry.

The student, identified by his surname Choi, had called the emergency 119 number at 8:52 am, three minutes before the crew sent their first distress signal.

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 criticized for delaying the evacuation order until the ferry was listing so sharply that escape was almost impossible.

A senior engineer on the ferry said there had been "no problems" with the ferry's engines or ballast tanks.

Some reports have suggested the ferry did not take on sufficient ballast to counter its cargo weight.

The ship capsized after executing a sharp turn, which may have triggered a shift in the cargo and caused the vessel to list beyond a critical point of return.

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.