TIME South Korea

Despair Turns to Anger in South Korea as Ferry Death Toll Reaches 28

A family member of a passenger onboard the capsized South Korean ferry Sewol closes her eyes at a port where family members gathered to wait for news from the rescue team in Jindo April 18, 2014.
A family member of a passenger onboard the capsized South Korean ferry Sewol closes her eyes at a port where family members gathered to wait for news from the rescue team in Jindo April 18, 2014. Kim Hong-Ji—Reuters

Relatives of those aboard the sunken Sewol ferry are asking whether the crew could have saved more lives by reacting sooner as reports emerge that the vice principal of the high school that accounted for many of the passengers hanged himself after being rescued

Updated 7:37 a.m. ET

The vice principal of the high school whose students made up the bulk of those aboard the stricken Sewol ferry reportedly committed suicide Friday after being rescued.

The death of Kang Min-Kyu, 52, is the 29th so far connected to the disaster, local news agency Yonhap reports, and with 270 people still missing, fingers are being pointed at the captain and crew, even as rescue attempts continue amid the murky and turbulent waters.

Officials are looking at whether a crewman’s decision to abruptly turn the 6,852-ton ship, bound for the southern resort island of Jeju, contributed to its sinking off the coast of South Korea on Wednesday. There were 475 passengers aboard, many of them high school students on a class trip. At present, officials say there are just 179 survivors, with the final death toll expected to climb considerably higher.

Divers have been continually buffeted by fierce currents, strong tides and bad weather, and have struggled to enter the now completely submerged hulk, with most recovered bodies being found floating in open water.

“We cannot even see the ship’s white color. Our people are just touching the hull with their hands,” Kim Chun-il, a diver from Undine Marine Industries, told relatives gathered nearby in the port city of Jindo.

Comparing eyewitness testimony from survivors with a transcript of a ship-to-shore exchange indicates that the captain delayed evacuation for about 30 minutes after a transportation official gave an order to prepare to abandon the 20-year-old vessel.

According to the Associated Press, at 9 a.m. — just five minutes after receiving a distress call — an official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center instructed that lifejackets be readied in preparation for evacuation. But a crew member on board replied, “It’s hard for people to move.”

Near the site of the tragedy, anxious and frustrated family members huddle to observe the faltering rescue attempts. “I want to jump into the water with them,” said Park Geum-san, the 59-year-old great-aunt of missing student Park Ye-ji. “My loved one is under the water … anger is not enough.”

The Japanese-made ship was three hours from its destination when it began to list heavily and fill with water, despite following a frequently traveled 300-mile route in calm conditions. Repeated attempts were made to right the vessel but failed even though it was apparently well within the 5% maximum list for such maneuvers to succeed.

Increasingly, relatives are venting anger at the authorities involved, and especially the ship’s captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, who was among 20 of the 29 crew members to survive, according to the coast guard.

“How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?” said Ham Young-ho, grandfather of Lee Da-woon, 17, one of the young confirmed dead, reports Reuters.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that some text messages, purportedly from survivors trapped within the vessel and saying “I am still alive” and “There are six of us in the room next to the dining hall,” were among many hoax messages that circulated in the aftermath of the disaster.

South Korea’s National Police Agency revealed there were no records of phone calls, SMS or other messages received from anyone listed as missing after noon on Wednesday — one hour after the boat overturned — further dashing hopes that anyone still inside the sunken hull is still alive.

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