(Corrects to show coastguard says ship not fully submerged)
By Jungmin Jang and Ju-min Park
MOKPO/JINDO, South Korea, April 18 South Korea's
coastguard denied that divers had entered a capsized ferry on
Friday in a bid to locate any survivors from an accident that
appears to have claimed the lives of hundreds of passengers,
many of them schoolchildren.
YTN television, South Korea's main cable news station, had
reported that eight divers were taking it in turns to search the
vessel, but the coastguard said that divers had not yet been
deployed inside the stricken vessel.
The coastguard also denied television reports that the ship
had been fully submerged, over 48 hours after the accident.
Experts say it is now unlikely that any of the 268 missing
passengers, many of them children from a school on the outskirts
of the capital Seoul, will be found alive.
So far, 28 of the 475 passengers and crew on the Sewol ferry
have been officially declared dead and 179 have been rescued.
Rescuers were pumping air into the dining hall of the
vessel, where many of the passengers were expected to be.
An investigation into the sinking, South Korea's worst
maritime accident in 21 years in terms of potential loss of
life, has focused on the role of the 69-year old captain and the
crew of the ship.
"He (the captain) may have been off the bridge.. And the
person at the helm at the time was the third officer," Park
Jae-eok, an official investigating the accident, told a news
conference in Mokpo, a city close to the port where rescue
operations are being conducted.
It is normal for junior officers to take the helm and the
400 km (300 mile) journey from the mainland port of Incheon to
the resort island of Jeju was a regular trip in familiar waters.
The accident happened in calm, shallow waters and
investigators have focused on the role of the crew as the vessel
appeared to have a clean safety record.
Parents of the missing schoolchildren blamed the ship's
captain for the tragedy after he and shipping company officials
made emotional apologies for the loss of life.
Witnesses have said that the captain and some of the crew
left the vessel while others instructed passengers to remain in
place as it began to sink.
Theories about the cause of the accident swirled and
investigators declined to comment on reports the vessel had
turned before it listed to port and capsized.
Coastguard officials have said the investigation was focused
on possible crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and
structural defects of the vessel, although the ship appears to
have passed all of its safety and insurance checks.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, faces criminal investigation,
which is standard procedure in South Korea.
Both 69-year-old Lee and the company that owns the ship have
apologised for the loss of life, although neither has admitted
Relatives were in mourning overnight in a hospital in the
city of Mokpo, close to the port city of Jindo, which is acting
as a rescue centre. Some of them spoke bitterly of the captain.
"How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump
from the sinking ship himself?" said Ham Young-ho, grandfather
of 17-year-old Lee Da-woon, one of the dead.
Lee has not made any public statement on whether or why he
may have left the vessel before many of the passengers.
(Writing by David Chance; Editing by James Pearson and Raju