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Improperly stored cargo ferry design led to disaster

Relatives slapped Choi Sang-hwan, deputy head of the Korea Coast Guard, at a rescue command center Thursday.

Ahn Young-joon/associated press

Relatives slapped Choi Sang-hwan, deputy head of the Korea Coast Guard, at a rescue command center Thursday.

JINDO, South Korea — Prosecutors 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 Thursday evening, 184 of the ship’s 476 passengers were confirmed dead, and 118 remained missing. Two-thirds of the passengers were students from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul.

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Prosecutors investigating why the ship suddenly listed and overturned 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 on Thursday, Ahn Sang-don, a senior prosecutor in charge of the investigation, officially cited them as causes of the disaster.

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

Grief-stricken relatives have blamed the captain and crew 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. 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 this island. Parents surrounded them in a sit-in protest, demanding that the officials speed up the rescue operations.

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

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.

On Thursday, prosecutors 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 with a design similar to the Sewol’s.

At the Paengmok port, parents gathered in a white tent, exhausted and dejected, waiting for 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.

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.

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