The ferry: Weeks needed to lift it after complete sinking

The ferry: Weeks needed to lift it after complete sinking

The capsized South Korean ferry Sewol completely sank underwater yesterday, dimming hopes of finding nearly 270 people still considered missing as the authorities turned to the grim task of recovering bodies and raising the vessel.

The official death toll was raised to 33, as the authorities arrested the captain and two crew members for abandoning the ferry which was carrying 476 passengers, of whom 325 were high school students.

The number of people rescued - 174 - has been unchanged since last Wednesday when the ferry started to sink around 9am.

Some anguished parents and relatives of the missing children began offering DNA swabs to help identify the dead, as criticisms of the government's response continued to grow.

Desperate relatives of the victims berated harried-looking police and coast guard officials in Jindo, close to the sinking scene, urging greater efforts.

It remained unclear what caused the accident.

Survivors reportedly heard a loud noise before the ship began to list, but the Yonhap news agency reported yesterday that investigators found no external shocks to the ferry.

Yonhap also quoted an official member of the probe team saying that they have "almost ruled out" an early theory that the ferry hit submerged rock, resulting in the accident.

By yesterday evening, the last part of the capsized vessel protruding above water - a section of bow - had disappeared, its position marked only by a pair of buoys.

The hulk now lies suspended under water by giant air sacks fitted by divers.

While floating salvage cranes have arrived on site, experts say it will take days, if not weeks, to raise the hulk.

South Korean coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying that the cranes would be deployed when deemed safe.

"Lifting the ship does not mean they will remove it completely from the sea. They can lift it 2m to 3m off the seabed," he added.

Meanwhile, Sewol's captain Lee Joon Seok, 68, was arrested and charged yesterday with criminal negligence and violation of maritime laws. The ship's helmsman, Cho Joon Ki, 55, and its third mate, a 25-year-old woman identified as Park Han Gyeol, were also arrested on unknown charges.

The three were filmed outside court with heads bowed under dark hoods and faces pixelled out. The smallest-built of the three - likely Park - appeared to be weeping.

Local media reported that Lee had been in his cabin at the time of the accident. Prosecutor Yang Jung Jin told reporters that Lee had not been on the bridge when the ship was passing through a chain of small islands - a violation of maritime law.

Early investigations and tracking data from South Korea's Maritime Ministry suggest that the Sewol made a sharp turn just before it sent its first distress signal last Wednesday morning.

Experts have suggested that the tight turn could have caused heavy cargo onboard the ferry, including more than 150 vehicles, to shift drastically and, in turn, causing the ferry to list heavily and then capsize.

According to an interim probe, Lee, the captain, was not steering the ship when it ran into trouble. Instead, it was being steered by Cho, who was being supervised by Park. According to the New York Times, it was Park's first time guiding the ferry through the notoriously treacherous waterway.

At his arraignment, Cho reportedly said: "It may have partly been my fault. But the steering gear rotated unusually fast."

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