by STEVE HAN
Rescue divers recovered a victim’s body on Tuesday inside a capsized Sewol ferry 195 days since the date of the tragedy off South Korea’s southwestern coast, according to the task force in charge of the search.
The heavily decomposed body, believed to be that of a woman, was found inside the bathroom on the fourth floor of the ferry at around 5:25 p.m. local time. The rescue team said the divers will lift out the body as soon as the currents slow down. Death toll now stands at 295 while nine victims are still missing in the waters.
The last body was reportedly found 102 days ago on July 18 when a rescue diver found a 56-year-old female cook in the ferry’s cafeteria.
The 6,825-ton Sewol ferry, carrying 476 people, sank on April 16 after failing to handle a sharp turn. Aside from the 172 passengers who were rescued on the day the ferry sank, the rest of the passengers were either found dead or remain missing.
Families of the missing victims have been living at a nearby school gym in Jindo since the ferry sank, waiting desperately for over six months to learn the fate of their loved ones. They have already refused to allow the ship to be lifted above sea level due to concerns over the bodies getting swept out to the waters.
Officials ensured that the search operation will continue until all of the missing victims are found or told otherwise by their families, but concerns are growing at an alarming rate as the search may be virtually impossible in the blistering conditions of Korea’s freezing winter.
The Sewol ferry was on its way to Jeju Island, South Korea’s flagship tourist destination, when it sank six months ago. Most of the 476 passengers on board were teenagers who were students at South Korea’s Danwon High School on a field trip. The vice principal of the school, who accompanied the students, was one of the passengers rescued, but he took his own life two days later after reportedly writing that living through the guilt of leaving the students behind would be “too much to bear.”
Considered as one of the worst maritime disasters ever, the Sewol disaster evoked a national outrage in South Korea over its government’s inadequate response, especially after the investigators revealed that the sinking was caused by a combination of cargo overloading, illegal modification of the vessel and poor helmsmanship of the ferry’s crew members.
South Korea’s central government has been accused of failing to monitor the Korea Shipping Association, a lobby group, which approved the safety of Sewol, even though officials overloaded the ferry with cargo and lied about it in the ferry’s departure report.
Some families of the victims took to the streets and began fasting indefinitely to urge the South Korean government to pass a special law to fully investigate the cause of the disaster. The public scrutiny prompted the resignation of South Korea’s prime minister. South Korean President Park Geun-hye also controversially dismantled the country’s coast guard over the disaster and sparked her opponents to criticize her for diverting responsibility from her own regime.
The ferry’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, is now standing trial as he is charged with negligent homicide for telling the passengers to stay in the capsizing ship without any effort to rescue them. Prosecutors have sought the death penalty for Lee, 68, and harsh penalties for 14 other crew members, who abandoned the ship after telling the passengers to stay put in their cabins.
Photo courtesy of Reuters/Korea Coast Guard