S. Korean officials fear death toll will jump after ship sinks in Bering Sea

South Korean fishing boats gather at a port on Baengnyeong Island, South Korea, in this Monday, March 31, 2014 file photo. .
South Korean fishing boats gather at a port on Baengnyeong Island, South Korea, in this Monday, March 31, 2014 file photo. . AP Photo/Yonhap

SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of – South Korean officials expressed fear Tuesday of a huge death toll after rescuers failed to find any of the more than 50 fishermen who went missing when their ship sank amid high waves in the freezing waters of the western Bering Sea.

Authorities rescued seven crew members and recovered one body, but weather and water conditions complicated the search for the others, an official from the South Korean fisheries and oceans ministry said on condition of anonymity because of office rules.

Rescue workers found an empty lifeboat Tuesday near the site of the accident that might have belonged to the sunken Oryong 501, said Kim Kang-ho, an official with Sajo Industries, the canned tuna company that owns the ship.

The crew included 35 Indonesians, 13 Filipinos, 11 South Koreans and one Russian inspector, the fisheries and oceans ministry official said. Russian authorities said there were 62 people aboard the ship, which sank in the western part of the Bering Sea, near Russia.

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The ministry official said it’s believed that the ship, which was catching pollock, began to list after stormy weather caused seawater to flood its storage areas. Kim said the 2,000-ton vessel was 36 years old. The seven people who were rescued had symptoms of hypothermia and couldn’t talk in length about what exactly happened, he said.

An official from South Korea’s foreign ministry, who refused to be named, citing office rules, said Tuesday morning that the death toll was expected to rise because rescuers failed to find any of the missing passengers. Four fishing ships that were operating nearby were continuing to search for survivors, but harsh weather conditions have limited their mobility, the official said.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won told a Cabinet meeting that the government would work with Russia to speed up the rescue efforts.

Authorities in the Russian port of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky said the rescued fishermen were well and would be taken to South Korea once the weather improves.

“The condition of the fishermen who were rescued is fine,” Artur Rets, chief of the rescue centre at the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky port, told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Kim, the Sajo official, said the ship left for the Bering Sea from Busan, South Korea, on July 10 to catch pollock, a winter delicacy in South Korea.

Another official from Sajo, who did not want to be named, said the ship had eight lifeboats, and that the seven fishermen who survived and the person later found dead used one of them to escape. The captain of the ship had issued an escape order and it was believed that the rest of the crew also attempted to escape, he said.

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At the time of the sinking, the waves were more than 4 metres (13 feet) high and the water temperatures were below minus-10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), he said.

Russia allows South Korean fishermen to fish in its waters for pollock and other fish.

The ship’s sinking came less than eight months after South Korea experienced its deadliest maritime disaster in decades. The sinking of the Sewol ferry off South Korea’s southwestern coast in April left more than 300 passengers dead, mostly teenagers on a school trip. The accident caused nationwide grief and fury.

Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.