Rescue operations continue in search of survivors from sunken ship

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Rescue operations continue in search of survivors from sunken ship

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Military divers were continuing efforts Sunday to reach a sunken ship as hopes were diminishing that there may be more survivors from one of the country's worst naval disasters in history.

The 1,200-ton South Korean Navy corvette "Cheonan" carrying 104 crew went down late Friday near the Yellow Sea border with North Korea after an unexplained explosion that officials and witnesses said split the vessel in half. Fifty-eight of them, including the ship's captain, were pulled out alive, and 46 are still missing.

A North Korean attack was initially suspected, but officials now say that is unlikely. The site of Friday's accident has been the scene of three bloody skirmishes between the navies of the two countries last year, 1999 and 2002.

A 79-member ship salvage unit from the Navy reached near waters early Sunday for the sailors still unaccounted for, but backed out just minutes after diving due to rough waves and low water temperature, the spokesman of the defense ministry said.

Most of the 46 missing soldiers are believed to have been inside the boat when it sank and, according to experts, are unlikely to survive more than 72 hours in the cold water.

Efforts will continue, Won Tae-jae added, with a 3,000-ton rescue vessel arriving at the scene later in the day.

"We are hopeful, as the weather is relatively good compared to the previous day," Won told a press briefing held a day after the divers failed to reach the sunken vessel under shallow waters about 24 meters deep.

The military hasn't even been able to detect the exact location of the vessel because of strong tides, Won said, adding rescuers were working "with a very limited timeframe."

Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said an explosion appears to have torn a hole in the rear of the vessel, shutting off the engine and taking the ship down in less than three hours. Officials remain cautious about the cause, however, until specialists are able to reach and investigate the craft.

After visiting the disaster site Saturday, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told the press that the government is "yet to track down the exact cause behind the tragedy."

"The vessel appeared to have been split into half," he said. "But making predictions is meaningless in this situation, I believe. Please bear with us."

The Seoul government is refraining from any comments suggesting Pyongyang's involvement in the incident.

Delivering President Lee Myung-bak's instruction made to his ministers to conduct prompt investigations into all possibilities, Lee's spokesperson Kim Eun-hye said Seoul was "not detecting any unusual moves" from Pyongyang.

The incident comes amid heightened tension between the two Koreas, which technically remain in a state of conflict since the 1950-1953 Korean
War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. North Korea has said in recent weeks it is bolstering its defense in response to joint South Korean-U.S. military drills that were held this month.

North Korea does not recognize the western sea border, drawn by the United Nations at the end of the Korean War, and claims that it should be redrawn further south.

The North's Korean Central News Agency reported Saturday that the country's leader Kim Jong-il attended a performance by the state symphony orchestra without specifying a date.

Military officials are narrowing down the possibilities to the vessel's collision with a rock, a torpedo attack from outside forces, including North Korea, or an internal explosion due to the gunpowder and explosives the ship was carrying.

The Navy plans to salvage the sunken vessel for investigation to determine what caused the incident, a long process that may take at least 20 days, officials said.

The sunken vessel, 88 meters long and 10m wide, was put into service in 1989 and was equipped with missiles and torpedoes, according to Navy officials.

The incident is said to be one of South Korea's worst naval disasters.

The country's worst maritime accident occurred in 1974, when a ship sank off the southeast coast in stormy weather, killing 159 sailors and coast guard personnel. In 1967, 39 sailors were killed by North Korean artillery. [Yonhap]
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`밀폐 침실에 있던 21명, 69시간은 생존 가능` 해군 분석 나와


"침실이 완전히 밀폐됐다면 생존도 가능하다." 26일 백령도 앞바다에서 침몰한 천안함의 실종자 중 일부가 완전히 밀폐되는 침실에 머물렀다면 최대 69시간은 살아있을 수도 있다는 해군 측의 분석이 나왔다. 해군은 27일 자정쯤 경기 평택시 해군 제2함대 사령부 내 임시 숙소에서 실종자 가족을 상대로 이같은 내용의 브리핑을 했다.

해군은 생존자 증언을 바탕으로 사고 당시 침실에 21명 정도의 장병이 머물렀던 것으로 추정하고 있다. 이 침실의 경우 밀폐가 가능해 침실이 파손되지만 않았다면 내부 탑승자는 생존할 수도 있다는 것이다. 해군 관계자는 "보통 17% 정도인 공기 중 산소가 7% 정도로 떨어지면 생존이 어렵다"며 "21명이 머물렀다는 가정 하에 69시간 정도는 이 정도 산소가 유지될 것으로 보인다"고 말했다.

이 같은 주장은 실종자 가족들에게 큰 희망이 되고 있다. 실종자들에게 밀폐 가능한 공간이 없었을 경우, 이들은 섭씨 3도 안팎의 찬 바닷물에 그대로 노출됐을 가능성이 높다. 이 정도 온도에서 보통 사람은 1~3시간 사이 저체온증에 빠져 사망할 확률이 높다. 그런데 이들이 밀폐 공간에 머물러 있다면 이 찬 물에 몸을 직접 접촉하지 않았을 것으로 보인다는 것이다.

28일 오전 같은 함대에서 열린 브리핑에서도 비슷한 분석이 나왔다. 해군 관계자는 "배 구조가 겹실로 되어 있어 물이 들어오는 것을 막는 방호막을 형성할 수 있지 않았을까"라며 "확답이 어렵지만, 가능성이 있는 얘기"라고 말했다.

이같은 기대는 침실이 전혀 파손되지 않고 고스란히 물에 가라앉았을 경우를 상정한 것이다. 해군이 이런 희망을 아주 조심스럽게 내놓는 이유다. 김성찬 해군참모총장은 "어떤 가정을 토대로 추가 생존 여부를 말씀드리면 헛된 희망 또는 절망을 드리게 될 것 같아 조심스럽다"고 말한 것으로 전해졌다.

평택=정선언 기자, 디지털뉴스 jdn@joins.com
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