No luck in frantic rescue efforts

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No luck in frantic rescue efforts


천안함 실종자 구조작업에 자원했다 순직한 해군 특수전여단(UDT) 소속 고 한주호(53·가운데) 준위가 29일 성인봉함에서 수색작업에 투입되기 직전의 모습. [로이터=연합뉴스]

The Lee Myung-bak administration frantically tried yesterday to ease national disquiet over the mysterious sinking of a Navy patrol combat boat, with the president visiting the search site and the government releasing military video recordings of Friday night’s incident.

Four days after the unexplained sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan, rescue divers continued their mission in the Yellow Sea near Baengnyeong Island searching for 46 missing sailors. While no news about survivors was reported by last evening, one member of the rescue team died during the mission. A 53-year-old warrant officer passed out underwater around 3:20 p.m. He was sent to the U.S. ship Salvo, but died during medical treatment, the military said.

As public frustration mounted over the lack of an explanation for the accident, the Blue House took the matters into its own hands. President Lee yesterday visited the site, which is located within the range of North Korea’s coastal artillery, to check on the rescue operation and meet with missing sailors’ families.

“Baengnyeong Island is only about 13.1 kilometers [8.1 miles] away from the North’s Jangsan Cape, where ground-to-ship guided missiles and coastal artilleries are heavily deployed,” Blue House spokesman Park Sun-kyoo said, adding that no president has ever visited there because of the risk involved.

Located 191.4 kilometers northwest of Incheon, the island is South Korea’s northernmost island in the Yellow Sea.


Members of the South Korean Navy’s Ship Salvage Unit board a rubber boat from the Navy’s rescue vessel Gwangyang yesterday in the search for missing members of the sunken South Korean Navy ship Cheonan near Baengnyeong Island. [NEWSIS]

Park said Air Force fighter jets patrolled to ensure the president’s safety, adding that Lee decided on his trip to express the seriousness of the situation. “Lee’s visit should not be interpreted as a publicity stunt,” Park said. “The president was revealing his heartbroken feeling toward the missing soldiers.”

At the order of the Blue House, the Ministry of National Defense also released a video clip of the incident. In a media briefing yesterday afternoon, the ministry released an 80-second clip taken shortly after the unexplained explosion tore the Cheonan in half Friday night.

According to the military, marines stationed on the nearby Daecheong Island recorded the incident using a thermal observation device (TOD) as soon as they heard the explosion. The thermal observation device is a type of night-vision used by the military.

The ministry said the marines’ recording was about 40 minutes long, and an edited version was released to the media.


30일 오후 천안함의 실종자 구조작업에 투입됐다 순직한 해군 특수전(UDT) 소속 잠수사 고 한주호(53) 준위(사진 왼쪽). 한 준위의 아들 한상기 중위(왼쪽)와 유가족들이 30일 오후 경기도 성남 국군수도 병원 장례식장에서 오열하고 있다. [연합뉴스], [김성룡 기자]

The 80-second footage was blurry, showing only the outline of the ship. In the image time-stamped at 9:33 p.m., the stern was not visible, while the bow remained identifiable. Another image at 9:56 p.m. captured a speed boat approaching the sinking ship.

“When the TOD began recording, the stern was already invisible because it had gone underwater,” said Won Tae-jae, Defense Ministry spokesman.

Earlier yesterday, the military refused to make the footage public, fueling speculation about the cause of the sinking, and Blue House spokesman Park said there was no reason to hide the clip. After Park said the record would be released unless it contained a very special security concern, the ministry released the edited clip.

“Questions have arisen that the government was hiding something, and the president has made it clear there should never be any doubt,” Park said, urging the media to refrain from speculating about the cause of the incident.

The military yesterday also tried to explain the difficulties of the underwater operation.

Currents in the Yellow Sea are known to be the third fastest in the world, said Navy Cmdr. Song Mu-jin of the Ship Salvage Unit during a Defense Ministry media briefing. “Rescue operations in the Yellow Sea are different from many other areas,” he said.

Song explained that the currents where the divers were working flow at four knots (two meters per second, 6.6 feet per second), explaining that the currents “will give them the feeling of standing alone on the rooftop of a building amidst a typhoon.”

He said that gaining entry to the inside of the submerged stern, where most of the missing sailors were located at the time of the explosion, is a risky task for even veteran divers as visibility is only 30 centimeters (1 foot) with flashlights.

“They also need atmospheric diving suits, including helmets, for the operation, but it takes three to four days to get ready,” Song said. “Rescue divers are now working with scuba diving gear in violation of safety protocols.”

While the bow was discovered 25 meters underwater, the stern was located 45 meters underwater, making it more difficult for divers to reach, Commodore Lee Ki-sik of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Poor equipment was also cited as the reason for the rescue diver’s death yesterday. “He collapsed due to high pressure and eventually died,” a military source told Yonhap News.

While the rescue efforts continued, military specialists said it was unlikely the sailors remained alive inside the submerged ship, even if the compartments were sealed after the explosion. “A 1,200-ton ship was ripped in half, so imagine the impact,” said a former member of the Navy’s Ship Salvage Unit. “I would assume that they have suffered serious internal and external injuries from the shock wave.”

A retired vice admiral agreed. “Even if they managed to seal the compartments, the water pressure could destroy doors as the ship sank,” he said.

Although the cause of the sinking is undetermined, the government has ruled out the possibility of an internal explosion for now. President Lee was briefed by Navy Chief of Staff Kim Sung-chan yesterday.

At a cabinet meeting in the morning, President Lee also ordered the military be on full alert toward North Korea. “Since the sinking took place at the front line, the military should thoroughly prepare for any move by North Korea,’’ Lee was quoted as saying by Park. “I want the military to maintain its complete readiness.’’

The Blue House later explained that Lee was not drawing a connection between the sinking and North Korea.

By Ser Myo-ja []
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이 대통령, 첫 백령도 해상 방문

이명박 대통령이 30일 헬기를 타고 천안함 침몰 현장인 백령도 앞바다를 직접 찾았다. 역대 대통령 중 백령도를 방문한 이는 이 대통령이 처음이다. 백령도는 지대함 유도탄·해안포로 무장한 북한의 월례도·장산곶 해안진지들과 불과 7~13㎞ 떨어져 있는 최전방이다. 참모들이 경호상의 위험을 들어 반대하자 이 대통령은 “내가 국군 통수권자다. 실종된 장병 한 사람, 한 사람이 내 자식, 내 부하 같은 사람들인데 어떻게 앉아서만 보느냐”며 방문을 고집했다고 한다. 이 대통령의 전용 헬기 주변엔 전투기가 초계비행을 하며 돌발 사태에 대비했다.

해군 모자, 태극기가 그려진 점퍼를 착용한 이 대통령은 구조작업 중인 해군 독도함에 먼저 도착했다. 독도함은 침몰한 천안함의 함수와 함미의 중간 지점에서 작업 중이었다. 이 대통령은 “선체를 건지는 것보다 사람이 있는 곳에 전력을 쏟아야 한다. 모두 여러분들의 부하며 병사들 아닌가”라며 해군 지휘부를 독려했다. 또 “최전방 분단지역 NLL(북방한계선)에 근무하는 병사들은 전쟁에 참여하는 병사와 똑같다”고 말했다. 사고 원인과 관련해선 “과학적이고 종합적으로 조사해야 한다. 투명하게 공개하고, 절대 예단하지 말라”고 당부했다.
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