Hundreds Still Missing In South Korea Ferry Disaster

Apr 18, 2014
Originally published on April 18, 2014 3:24 pm

The rescue and recovery mission continues off the southern coast of South Korea after a ferry carrying over 400 people capsized this week.

More than 200 people are missing, and bad weather threatens to diminish recovery efforts.

Jason Strother joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti from Seoul with the latest information on rescue efforts.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.


I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, we'll spend a few minutes with Adrianne Haslet-Davis. What has this year been like for the ballroom dancer who vowed to dance again after losing a leg to the Boston bombings?

CHAKRABARTI: But first let's go to South Korea and the latest on the ferry that capsized with hundreds of people onboard, including many teenagers who were on a school field trip. The ship is now entirely submerged in the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea. More than 260 people are missing, though rescuers are holding out some hope that there may be survivors onboard who might have managed to find air pockets within the vessel.

Jason Strother is a freelance journalist based in Seoul, South Korea. Jason, welcome.

JASON STROTHER: Thank you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: This is a really tough story. Apparently the ship is now entirely underwater, but I see today that divers managed to at least breach the hull of the ferry, and two divers possibly even entered the second deck. What more can you tell us about progress that's been made?

STROTHER: Right, I mean, weather conditions, tidal conditions, had not been in the divers' favor. After many attempts for the past couple days, they were able to enter the hull of the ship, but from what I understand, visibility was very low, although there had been some slim hopes that they might find survivors maybe holding on in air pockets. No such luck on the dive today.

CHAKRABARTI: But in addition to the ongoing rescue efforts, there's news that arrest warrants are now being sought for the captain and several crew members. Tell us more about that.

STROTHER: Captain Lee has become I think the chief villain in this whole ordeal for the past couple days. He appeared on South Korean television on Thursday very contrite, very apologetic, although more or less hiding his face from the cameras the whole time. It was revealed today during a press conference that he wasn't even at the helm when the ship began to capsize.

It turns out one of his junior offices, a third mate, was at the wheel. It's not entirely clear yet why the captain had gone away. And from what I understand, based on interviews with other crew members, the authorities think they have enough evidence to seek this arrest warrant for Captain Lee, as well as a few other of his crew members.

CHAKRABARTI: Now one of the most difficult parts of the story is the fact that more than 230 students are still missing. They were aboard the ferry. And we also see now that the vice principal of their school was found hanged on the school grounds in what looks like an apparent suicide.

STROTHER: Yeah, kind of just making an already difficult story even worse. The vice principal, who was a survivor of the shipwreck himself, he was accompanying the kids when they were on this school trip to Jeju Island, his body was found hanging from a tree outside the gymnasium on Jindo Island, where all the families are camped out, pretty much, for the past couple days waiting for any news about their children.

I don't want to speculate, but right, it reflects the stress that is being felt by everyone involved in this case.

CHAKRABARTI: Now Jason, what are survivors and family members, what are they saying about the rescue efforts so far and the just crush of media attention that they've been getting as they wait to find out what's happened to their family members?

STROTHER: I visited in the high school in the town of Anson just south of Seoul, where all of these 320 students and the faculty were from. It's a sad scene there. The auditorium in the school has pretty much turned into a news center, and while I was there yesterday, kind of a scrum of journalists had surrounded a woman who was weeping, and then that prompted another gentleman in the room to, you know, chastise the journalists in there.

So right, the families are very wary about the media attention. Today the family members issued a statement that they're furious with how this whole ordeal has been handled. They say the government botched everything from the start. They went to the south coast thinking their kids were still alive, only to find out on their way there that many were missing.

And they say that the government, the coast guard, the navy just hasn't come through with its pledges that it made initially to get into the ship, to pump oxygen into the ship. They're very angry, and they seem right now, between the government and the captain, pointing the finger of blame at them.

CHAKRABARTI: And finally, Jason, there's an investigation going on trying to uncover the cause of the accident. Has there been any progress on that front?

STROTHER: There's probably no way to really determine what happened until authorities can raise the vessel out of the water. And already cranes have been brought to the scene, and the navy plans to start lifting, but there are many logistic problems that need to be worked out first, before they can hoist the ship out of the water and bring it back to land for inspection.

CHAKRABARTI: Jason Strother, reporting from South Korea. Jason, thank you so much.

STROTHER: Thank you, Meghna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.