More than 50 crew members from a South Korean fishing ship that sank in the western Bering Sea were feared dead Tuesday, as furious relatives blamed the ship's owner and its captain for not doing enough to save their family members from the frigid waters a day earlier.
Russian coast guard helicopters and at least five fishing ships were scouring the area in search of the missing, with authorities finding at least one empty lifeboat Tuesday. Officials from the ship's South Korean parent company said they were hanging onto a "glimmer of hope," but with continued rough seas and bad weather, there were dwindling expectations that the fishermen would be found.
At a gathering at the company's headquarters, relatives of the missing fishermen wondered whether the captain was too late in taking emergency measures after the ship started sinking amid high waves Monday. Some blamed Sajo Industries, the canned tuna company that owns the ship, for not ordering him to evacuate the vessel earlier, according to Kim Kang-ho, a company official.
"Stop blaming the captain! The company should have ordered an evacuation in such a crisis," a person believed to be a relative was seen in TV footage shouting at a company official.
The emotional scenes of grief and anger hit a nerve in a country less than eight months removed from 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, causing nationwide grief and fury.
In the latest disaster, authorities rescued seven crew members and recovered one body after the ship sank, but bad weather and rough 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, Kim said.
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.
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 that the death toll was expected to rise because rescuers failed to find any of the missing passengers. Five fishing ships that were operating nearby were continuing to search for survivors, but harsh weather conditions have limited their mobility, the official said.
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.
At the time of the sinking, the waves were more than 4 meters (13 feet) high and the water temperatures were below minus-10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), he said.
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.