World / Asia-Pacific

Q&A: Key facts about South Korean ferry sinking

(Xinhua) Updated: 2014-04-16 21:26

BEIJING - The South Korean ferry "Sewol" with more than 459 people on board, mostly high school students, capsized and sank off Jindo Island on the country's southwest coast Wednesday morning, leaving at least four people dead and 291 others missing.

Q: How are search and rescue efforts going and what are the difficulties?

A: After receiving a distress signal, South Korean authorities, including police, fire, coastguard and navy, dispatched 72 ships and 18 helicopters to the scene.

An 82-member Ship Salvage Unit (SSU) and 114 elite navy SEAL divers raced to the site.

The U.S. Seventh Fleet said amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, which has helicopters on board, was on a routine patrol off South Korea's west coast and was on its way to the scene of the accident.

About 5 p.m.local time, a team of South Korean Navy divers succeeded in entering the sunken vessel and searched three of its compartments, but found no bodies.

The ship sank at a depth of 30 meters, with the ocean currents flowing at a speed of 8 km per hour. Wave were half a meter high. Water temperature was 11.7 Celsius degrees and underwater visibility poor at 20 centimeters.

Q: Why was there confusion in the initial statistics on casualties?

A: Officials from South Korea's Security and Public Administration Ministry told a press conference Wednesday four people had been found dead, with 291 others confirmed missing and 164 rescued, including 55 injured.

The dead were a 27-year-old female crew member and two high school students. The injured, most suffering burns or bone fractures, were sent to hospital.

The differences in the statistics initially reported was due to the number of government and civil agencies involved in the rescue and the need to confirm details between them.

Q: What is the initial judgement on the cause of the sinking?

A: Officials from South Korea's Security and Public Administration Ministry said the cause could be confirmed only after rescue and search work concluded.

However, South Korean media quoted some of the rescued passengers as saying that a loud sound was heard, before the ship started to list and then sank at around 11:30 a.m. local time Wednesday. The ship was believed to have hit a submerged rock or another ship on the foggy sea.

South Korea's YTN reported "Sewol"'s captain was acting in the role and it was unclear whether he was familiar with the voyage route. YTN also reported the ship's departure time from South Korea's western port city of Incheon on Tuesday night was delayed. There was a possibility the ship changed its route in order to make up time and arrive at its destination, the southern resort island of Jeju, on schedule.

Some rescued passengers said the power supply to their cabins was cut when the disaster occurred and many cabin doors could not be opened, while other survivors said many passengers were trapped in the shops, resturants and entertainment areas on lower floors when the ship listed suddenly and it was difficult for them to escape.

The ship was not equipped with a voyage data recorder because it was a coastal ferry that sails relatively short distances, the Korea Times reported.

Waters where the Sewol sank are known for strong tides, and there are many submerged rocks.

However, the route the ferry was following has no such rocks, according to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

Coast Guard officials said the route is often used by smaller ships.

A Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) official said, "Given weather conditions in the area, visibility in the accident area seems not to have been so bad."

The KMA has an observatory on nearby Jindo Island, but could not check the site's exact weather condition. "Localized fog banks can occur in small areas," the KMA official said.

Officials said they will question crew members, including the captain, about their compliance with safety measures.

Divers sent down to the wreck are looking to check whether there is a submerged rock and if the ship has a hole in its hull.

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