Hope fading for survival of sailors

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Hope fading for survival of sailors


The landing ship Seonginbong continues a search and rescue mission yesterday in the area where a ship exploded and sank. After locating the stern of the Navy patrol ship near Baengnyeong Island, an orange-colored buoy was installed to mark its location. [YONHAP]

Hopes of finding survivors possibly trapped inside a sunken Navy patrol boat diminished yesterday as rescue divers heard no reply from inside when they knocked on the hull.

The 69-hour window of survival closed yesterday evening as the divers made vigorous attempts to enter the sunken ship. The 1,200-ton patrol combat vessel Cheonan sank after an unexplained explosion tore it in half Friday night. Military authorities were able to locate the submerged front and rear sections near Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea days after the incident.

The stern is where most of the 46 sailors unaccounted for were believed to be located at the time of the explosion. Military specialists said sailors had up to 69 hours - or until sometime between 6 to 7 p.m. yesterday - to breathe if they managed to seal the compartments.

Rescue divers were able to reach the rear half of the ship in the afternoon and knocked on the hull around 1:20 p.m., but nothing was heard from inside, said Defense Ministry Spokesman Won Tae-jae. Divers had reached the front half of the sunken ship yesterday morning and knocked on the hull around 8:13 a.m., but no response was detected there as well, he said.

Despite the lack of response, divers geared up to enter the hull, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. The operation was planned to continue until 8 p.m. yesterday, Commodore Lee Ki-sik, who is in charge of intelligence operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a media briefing.

“We were able to find that the bow completely submerged, while the stern was tilted about 90 degrees to the left,” Lee said. “We are trying to find ways to enter the hull of the stern.”

“Each team of divers can remain underwater for up to 13 minutes,” said Lee. “Taking into account the time it takes to go down and resurface, they have up to eight minutes to work [on the ship].” Won said divers found the bow around 7:57 p.m. Sunday and managed to attach buoys. The stern was found around 10:31 p.m. Sunday and the buoys were placed yesterday morning around 9 a.m.

The stern was discovered about 180 meters (590 feet) north from the explosion site.

“To refloat the sunken stern, we attached it to three-inch thick nylon rope,” said Commodore Lee.

As the clock continued ticking into the evening, 150 family members waiting to be briefed about the situation at the barracks of the Second Navy Fleet erupted with rage. They scuffled with soldiers demanding to know the fate of their loved ones. “What can I possibly say?” Jeon Byeong-cheol, uncle of missing Petty Officer Sohn Su-min, told Yonhap News. “The tragedy happened because the military did not hurry up to rescue the survivors immediately after the sinking!”

The mother of Petty Officer Seo Dae-ho collapsed as she cried before the military officials. “Save my son!” she said. His father, Seo Yeong-hee, also said he won’t believe the military’s announcement unless he sees with his own eyes what had happened to his son.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said yesterday that “the possibility of survival is very low.” Kim was speaking before lawmakers on the Defense Committee of the National Assembly. Regarding the military’s report that divers heard no signal back from inside the sunken ship, he said the situation can be interpreted in many ways.

“Two and a half days have passed since the sinking, and it is possible that they are still alive, but I also think that the condition [inside the sunken ship] won’t be easy for them to react to outside sounds,” he said.

The underwater rescue mission has been hampered by extremely low visibility and strong currents, the minister told lawmakers.

“Divers have to rely on their touch during the underwater mission,” Kim said. “They have worked in the areas for two days, but the waters were extremely muddy. The visibility is near zero when the depth reaches five meters.”

According to the Defense Ministry, 154 rescue divers from the Korean military and 15 divers from U.S. forces have been used in the mission. A total of 50 vessels from the South Korean and U.S. forces are also working in the areas to assist the operation.

While the top priority will be the search and rescue of possible survivors, the military also began preparation to salvage the sunken ship. A floating crane capable of moving 2,200 tons left Tongyeong in South Gyeongsang yesterday and is scheduled to reach the area on Saturday. A 3,000-ton barge will leave Pyeongtaek Harbor today to reach the area tomorrow.

“Now that we have found the sunken ship, we have to analyze how the ship sank,” Commodore Lee said. “At this point, I cannot conclude for sure what the cause of the explosion was.”

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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