Skip to main content

South Korea ferry disaster: What's the likelihood of finding survivors?

By Faith Karimi, CNN
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
  • Passengers who get to an air pocket may still have a shot
  • Nigerian Harrison Okene's remarkable story of survival highlights that
  • He survived 60 hours in a tiny air bubble, where he'd taken shelter last year

(CNN) -- As rescuers take on the daunting task of finding survivors, family members of the missing passengers are pinning slim hopes on floundering air pockets in the capsized South Korean ferry.

They know the odds aren't in their favor, particularly after the entire ferry went underwater Friday. But they point to one especially miraculous tale of survival for their reason for not giving up.

In May 2013, a tug boat carrying a 12-person crew capsized off the coast of Nigeria. Two divers sent to recover the bodies assumed everyone aboard had died. After all, the boat was about 100 feet down under the Atlantic Ocean.

Three days had passed. And when a diver reached for a hand he thought belonged to a corpse, he discovered it was Harrison Okene, the boat's cook.

There's a chance for 'good' air pockets
Staying alive in a sunken ship
Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300. Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300.
South Korean ferry sinks
Photos: South Korean ferry sinks Photos: South Korean ferry sinks

Okene had survived 60 hours in a 4-foot space -- a tiny air bubble -- where he'd taken shelter.

"The rest of my life is not enough to thank God for this wonder, it is incredible," he told a local newspaper at the time.

South Korean ferry rescue operation  South Korean ferry rescue operation
South Korean ferry rescue operationSouth Korean ferry rescue operation

Some have also pointed to the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, which ran aground and capsized in January 2012, killing dozens. Some survivors were pulled out after being trapped inside the ship for more than 30 hours.

Anguish over sinking amplified by misinformation

Comparing the incidents

Do those parallels apply to South Korean ferry, Sewol?

In the case of the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship was not fully submerged. Sewol is.

As for air pockets, also known as "voids," they could provide those on board with a chance of survival, said maritime expert Kim Petersen said.

"It's difficult to say since we don't know the cause of the vessel sinking," he said. "If it had been because of a problem with one of the vehicle doors, of course that could cause massive flooding very quickly and reduce the likelihood of voids.

"But the fact is that this is a vessel that is almost 500 feet in length and it's sitting in waters that we believe to be between 70 and 110 feet deep, so there is the strong possibility that there are voids and the possibility of survivors."

Potential air pockets offer hope

Many caveats

Trapped passengers, if there are any, also have to think ahead.

"When they're in a small compartment ... with an air bubble, they really have to stay calm and breathe shallow and conserve the oxygen in that space," former Navy diver Bobbie Scholley told CNN.

Scenario shows what sinking feels like
Outrage grows after ferry sinks
Ferry tragedy: Mother haunted by decision

However, Petersen warned that the effort to reach those trapped in potential voids will not be easy.

"The problem now is getting divers down into those areas and bringing those people to the surface," he said.

Divers must contend with fierce winds and rough waters.

"There are heavy currents in the area. So the vessel itself is not stable in the water. So you are, by default, putting divers at risk," U.S. Navy Capt. Heidi Agle told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. The U.S. Navy is assisting with the South Korean search.

The frigid waters

Then, there's the temperature.

The water is a frigid 50 F (10 C). At that temperature, exhaustion sets in within one to two hours. And the expected survival time is no more than six hours, CNN meteorologist Samantha Mohr said.

Still, rescue teams continued to pump air into the hull of the submerged ship Friday. Like the family members, they aren't ready to give up yet.

READ: Woman, 71, survives because stranger wouldn't give up on her

READ: Fake survivor posts add to nation's anguish

READ: Seaborne cranes called in as relatives fear end to ferry rescue operation

CNN's Euan McKirdy contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 0402 GMT (1202 HKT)
South Korean forensics officials say they are sure the body found in a field last month is Yoo Byung Eun.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0939 GMT (1739 HKT)
The trial of the captain and crew began, with the accused facing the families of the victims.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 0252 GMT (1052 HKT)
South Korea's most wanted man, who is believed to have ties to the company that operated the ill-fated Sewol ferry, has eluded arrest for weeks.
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 1909 GMT (0309 HKT)
South Korea's President apologized for a ferry disaster that killed close to 300 people and said she would dismantle the country's coast guard.
May 16, 2014 -- Updated 0323 GMT (1123 HKT)
Here are 7 major factors that contributed to the ship's sinking.
April 30, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
The words and images from the cell phone of a girl who perished on the South Korean ferry convey the rising panic aboard.
May 14, 2014 -- Updated 0556 GMT (1356 HKT)
In one video, the captain of the sinking South Korean ferry scrambles to safety. In another, stranded passengers panic.
April 27, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
As the death toll from the ferry disaster continues to rise, yellow ribbons have evolved into a national sign of grief.
April 27, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
Choi Duk-Ha, 17, is credited for saving the lives of many on the ferry. He later died and is now hailed as a hero.
April 28, 2014 -- Updated 1931 GMT (0331 HKT)
CNN's Nic Robertson reports on the rising anger as South Koreans learn more about the final moments of the doomed vessel.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0314 GMT (1114 HKT)
CNN's Erin Burnett talks to Ship stability expert Paul Roden about whether the cargo lead to the ferry disaster.
April 25, 2014 -- Updated 1606 GMT (0006 HKT)
South Korea is not only a nation in mourning, but also a country overwhelmed with guilt. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
Park Jee Young, 22, helped passengers escape and distributed life jackets as the stricken ferry began to sink, refusing to wear one herself. It cost her life.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Such bravery has been conspicuously absent from two major maritime disasters in recent times.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
South Korean students remember their vice principal, who took his own life after the ferry sinking.
April 19, 2014 -- Updated 1930 GMT (0330 HKT)
The captain of the sunken South Korean ferry is defending his actions as rescuers continue the search for survivors.
April 20, 2014 -- Updated 0201 GMT (1001 HKT)
CNN's Kyung Lah reports on suicide in South Korea following news of a capsized ferry.