Ferry disaster: Relatives clash with police

April 21, 2014 - 12:06:59 am

JINDO: Divers finally began pulling bodies yesterday from the South Korean ferry that sank four days ago with hundreds of children on board, as families angry at the pace and focus of rescue efforts scuffled with police.

Coastguard officials said 19 bodies had been removed from the ship which sank on Wednesday morning, pushing operations further along the painful transition from rescue to recovery and identification. The confirmed death toll from the disaster stood at 58 with 244 people still unaccounted for.

Three bodies were pulled out of the fully submerged ferry just before midnight and another 16 were recovered yesterday, a coastguard spokesman said.

It was a key moment for distraught relatives, who have clung desperately to the hope that some passengers may have survived in air pockets in the upturned vessel.

The bodies were placed in tents at the harbour on Jindo island — not far from the disaster site — where the relatives have been camped out in a gymnasium since the ferry went down. In a process that looks set to be repeated with tragic frequency in coming days, they were checked for IDs and other particulars, after which their relatives were informed and asked to make an official identification.

Some of the policemen standing guard at the tents were openly weeping, while the cries of the family members could be heard from inside.  Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 350 were high school students headed for the holiday island of Jeju.

Devastated relatives have repeatedly denounced what they feel has been a botched, delayed and incompetent response to the disaster. Nearly 200 family members set off yesterday on a hike from Jindo to Seoul — 420km to the north — where they planned to march on the presidential Blue House in protest.

Scuffles broke out when they were prevented from crossing the bridge to the mainland by a large police detachment, and eventually they were forced to turn back.

One of the marchers, Chung Hye-Sook, said she was appalled that the authorities had begun taking DNA samples to ease identification of the bodies before the entire ferry had been searched.

“What are those people thinking?” Chung shouted. “We are asking them to save our children’s lives. We can’t even think about DNA testing. I want to save my child first,” she said.

Three giant floating cranes have been at the disaster site off the southwest coast of South Korea for days, but the coastguard has promised it will not begin lifting the ferry until it is clear there is nobody left alive. Investigators arrested its captain Lee Joon-Seok on Saturday along with a helmsman and the ship’s relatively inexperienced third officer, identified by her surname Park, who was in charge of the bridge when disaster struck. AFP