Divers fight time, adverse conditions

JINDO — Efforts to find passengers still trapped in the sunken ferry Sewol continued for a fifth day Sunday to no avail.

The Coast Guard said 563 divers, 190 ships and 30 aircraft were taking part in search and rescue operations.

It said five guide ropes had been attached to the submerged ferry to help divers enter the ship and rescue workers were searching its third and fourth decks.

Previously, the number of guide ropes had been as too many were feared to threaten the divers’ safety.

No survivors have been reported so far; and some experts say it is now possibly too late to find anyone alive.

Around midnight Saturday, divers managed to enter a multi-person cabin for the first time — some 80 hours after the ship capsized.

Family members of the missing passengers at Paengmok Port on Jindo Island attempted to contact Cheong Wa Dae to complain about the protracted rescue operation.

The accident occurred in the Maenggol Straits, which have the second fastest currents in waters off Korea.

Divers said the undertow — strong enough to take off their goggles — prevented them from entering the vessel.

Also, the bottom of the area is thick with mud and the current stirs it up, making visibility extremely poor.

Divers say they could only see 20 centimeters in front of them and groped around to find survivors. Also cargo debris was hindering them.

They have concentrated their efforts when the undertow is weak — approximately every six hours. But operations have also suffered setbacks because of bad weather.

Besides these factors, the authorities’ clumsy initial response also contributed to the delay.

Because of bureaucracy, they failed to send divers to the ferry in the first 60 critical minutes after the accident, the so-called “golden hour” when rescue workers need to start operations. Twenty divers arrived at the ship after two-and-a-half hours when it was almost completely submerged.

Many civilian experts suggested various methods and devices to assist in rescue operations, however, most of them were dismissed by the authorities.

During a televised interview, a civilian diver who participated in the salvage operation of the sunken frigate Cheonan, said he had suggested using a diving bell, a rigid chamber used to transport divers to deeper parts of the sea, could reduce time.

However, he claimed the government dismissed the suggestion because he was a civilian.

Many family members lashed out at the government’s poor control over the accident site, saying the empty talk of bureaucrats stalled rescue operations.

Due to intra-government reporting and task distributions, a quick response to the changing situation was delayed, they said.

Three days after the accident, the government asked nearby fishermen to support the operation with lights from their boats, after families urged them to do so. By Nam Hyun-woo, Yoon Sung-won The korea times

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