JINDO, South Korea – Concerns are growing among anguished families that the bodies of those who died in the sinking of a South Korean ferry may never be found, as search teams suspended work on Saturday because of bad weather.
A looming storm and high tides put a temporary halt to operations to recover the remains of more than 100 people still missing over a week after the huge ferry capsized.
“Over the weekend, strong wind and rain is expected in the Jindo area", a coastguard spokesman told journalists. “As efforts to find the missing people are becoming protracted, there are growing concerns among their families that bodies might be lost for good", he said.
The confirmed death toll on Saturday stood at 187, with 115 unaccounted for – many bodies are believed trapped in the ferry that capsized on April 16 with 476 people on board.
The passengers on the 6,825-tonne Sewol included 325 high school students – around 250 of them are either confirmed or presumed dead.
Although all hope of finding survivors has been extinguished, there is still anger and deep frustration among relatives of the missing over the pace of the recovery operation.
Frogmen have battled strong currents, poor visibility and blockages caused by floating furniture as they have tried to get inside the upturned vessel, which rests on a silty seabed.
The challenging conditions have meant divers are unable to spend more than a few minutes in the ship each time they go down. Even so, they are coming across horrifying scenes in the murky water, including one dormitory room – that would normally have held around 31 people – packed with the bodies of 48 students wearing lifejackets.
Around a quarter of the 187 bodies recovered so far have been found in waters outside the sunken vessel, and there are fears that some of the missing may have drifted free from the wreckage. The gathering storm was intensifying worries that remains could be scattered when the sea is churned by strong winds.
Authorities – wary of the palpable anger among relatives – have mobilised eight trawlers and installed 13-kilometre-long nets anchored to the seabed across the Maenggol sea channel to prevent the dead being swept into the open ocean. Dozens of other vessels, including navy ships as well as helicopters, have also been scouring the site and beyond. Three fisheries patrol vessels were being pressed into the search operation, expanding the hunt up to 60km from the scene of the disaster.
Police and local government officials will also be mobilised to scour coastal areas and nearby islands, a coastguard official said.