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Originally published Thursday, April 24, 2014 at 9:36 PM

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Prosecutors: Stowage, design problems sank S. Korea ferry

Prosecutors investigating why the Sewol ship suddenly listed and overturned on April 16 cited several causes, including the recent addition of cabins in the upper decks that made the ship top-heavy and the improper securing of cargo.

The New York Times


JINDO, South Korea — Prosecutors on Thursday officially attributed the sinking of a South Korean ferry to an improper stowage of cargo and a loss of stability caused by a change in the vessel’s design.

As of late Thursday, the bodies of 184 of the ship’s 476 passengers had been recovered, and 118 remained missing. Two-thirds of the passengers were second-year students from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul. More than 170 passengers survived the sinking.

Prosecutors investigating why the ship suddenly listed and overturned April 16 cited several causes: a sharper-than-recommended turn the ship made while passing through a strong current; the recent addition of cabins in the upper decks that made the ship top-heavy and impaired its ability to right itself after tilting; and an improper securing of vehicles, shipping containers and other cargo that allowed the items to come loose and slide to the side, further damaging the ship’s ability to recover its balance.

Until now, prosecutors had cited each of these factors as possible causes, based on documents and interviews with shipping company officials. But Thursday, Ahn Sang-don, a senior prosecutor in charge of the investigation, officially cited them as causes of the disaster.

He said investigators were looking for other potential causes, such as whether the ferry, the Sewol, was overloaded when it set sail from Incheon, west of Seoul, late April 15, bound for the resort island of Jeju. The ship was carrying cargo from dozens of companies, and investigators were following up with them to determine the weight and composition of the load.

Grief-stricken relatives of the dead and missing have blamed the captain and crew of the ship for the loss of life, and have blamed Korean officials at all levels for the slow pace of the recovery operation.

Scores of parents stormed a temporary command center for rescue operations late Thursday. Some mothers slapped the man in charge there, Choi Sang-hwan, deputy head of the Korea coast guard, blaming him for leaving the students to be “food for the fish.” As blows landed on his face, Choi did not resist, and police officers did not try to intervene.

Later, Kim Seok-kyun, head of the coast guard, and Lee Ju-young, the minister of oceans and fisheries, arrived at the scene at the Paengmok port on the southern coast of Jindo island. Parents surrounded them in a sit-in protest, demanding that the officials speed up the rescue operations.

Four more crew members of the ship were arrested Thursday, bringing the number arrested to 11. Those already arrested include the ship’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, and all four of its lower-ranking officers. They face various criminal charges, including accidental homicide. They were among the first to flee the ship, while most of the passengers were trapped inside.

Prosecutors indicated that investigators were expanding their inquiry into the ship’s owner, safety inspectors, regulators and coast-guard radio dispatchers who were accused of not responding quickly enough to the ferry’s trouble.

Prosecutors on Thursday raided two shipping watchdogs, the Korea Shipping Association and the Korean Register of Shipping.

They also raided the home of Yoo Byung-un, head of the family that owns Chonghaejin Marine, the company that operated the ferry. They seized another ferry owned by the company that had a design similar to the Sewol’s to collect possible evidence of safety violations.

“We will investigate malpractice in the entire shipping industry,” said Song In-taek, a senior prosecutor.

At the Paengmok port, parents gathered in a white tent, exhausted and dejected, waiting for the arrival of coast-guard ships bearing the bodies of passengers divers had found in the sunken ship. No survivor has been found in the past eight days.

In another white tent nearby, parents identified decomposing bodies wrapped in brown cloth. The place was off-limits to reporters, but soon the wailing was heard.

“My child! My child!” one mother cried repeatedly.

Until now, bodies recovered from the ship were mostly found in a large lounge. Now the divers face the more difficult task of searching the ship’s many corridors and compartments, said Ko Myung-seok, a coast-guard official.

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