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South Korea stops search for missing sailors

By Andrew Salmon, for CNN
South Korean marines search the shoreline for possible survivors and bodies from the sunken warship last week.
South Korean marines search the shoreline for possible survivors and bodies from the sunken warship last week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Families of the missing men request search is called off
  • The Cheonan sank in mysterious circumstances -- breaking in half on March 26
  • Military officials say explosion tore a hole in the rear of ship; cause of the blast not known
RELATED TOPICS

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- A week-long search for dozens of sailors lost when a South Korean warship sunk in waters close to North Korea was called off late Saturday after a request from the families of the missing men.

A representative of the families told TV reporters Saturday evening that they asked the navy to halt rescue operations, and concentrate instead on raising the sunken hull of the corvette Cheonan.

"We accepted the family's request and stopped searching for those missing under water last night," a military official told CNN. "We will start operations to lift the ship from the coming week."

Although naval experts quoted in Korean media have stated that men trapped underwater could only remain alive for 60 to 70 hours, many hoped that some sailors might somehow still be alive.

That possibility evaporated after the recovery of Chief Petty Officer Nam Ki-hoon's body.

The Cheonan sank in mysterious circumstances -- breaking in half on March 26.

Fifty-eight men were rescued at the scene. The 45 missing sailors are believed to have been trapped in the ship's stern, where the crew's quarters and galley were located.

Their families had been vocal in demanding the navy expedite its efforts to rescue their loved ones.

A day after the disaster, they stormed into a closed-off section of a naval base demanding answers, and berated the commander of the ship, Captain Choi Won-il, when he briefed them on the sinking.

Various family members spoke to the press, alleging incompetence, slack rescue efforts and cover-ups.

However, the national mood changed Tuesday after one of the navy's most experienced divers died while attempting to enter the wreck.

Navy Chief Master Sgt. Han Joo-ho, 53, fell unconscious after reportedly exceeding recommended times and depths under water. Two other divers were hospitalized the same day. Both have been released.

It is unclear whether intense public pressure contributed to the divers taking excessive risks.

Han was hailed as a hero and buried Saturday. Mourners included South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

In a separate incident Saturday, the South Korean Coast Guard found a member of a fishing boat crew returning from a search for evidence in the Cheonan sinking.

The 99-ton Kumyang 98 fishing boat -- thought to have collided with a Cambodian-registered freighter -- apparently went down late Friday, the Yonhap News Agency said.

Authorities were searching for the other crew members.

 
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