Death toll rises to 56

April 20, 2014

About 560 divers will take turns to go underwater during the day while 204 Navy, Coast Guard and private vessels and 34 aircraft will scour the area, officials said. (Yonhap)

(Yonhap) Rescue divers combed the sunken ferry Sewol off southwestern coast Sunday in Korea after retrieving more than a dozen bodies from inside the underwater wreck for the first time since the sinking, as hopes fade for any survivors among hundreds of people remaining missing.

A total of 16 bodies have been recovered from inside the ship since Navy and Coast Guard divers pulled the first of them Saturday night, bringing the confirmed death toll to 56.

A total of 476 people were aboard the 6,825-ton ship, mostly students from a high school near Seoul, when it sank Wednesday last week, and 174 of them have since been rescued. The ferry was on its way to the southern resort island of Jeju from the western port of Incheon.

Divers focused on searching passenger compartments of the ship. Strong currents and low visibility underwater have hampered diving operations, and officials said they will take maximum advantage of brief periods occurring a few times a day when currents slow down.

Weather in the area was relatively good on Sunday.

About 560 divers will take turns to go underwater during the day while 204 Navy, Coast Guard and private vessels and 34 aircraft will scour the area, officials said. Diving operations are expected to pick up pace as five underwater routes leading to the wreck have been set up, officials said.

More than four days since the sinking, hopes were quickly diminishing of finding anyone alive among those believed to be trapped inside the wreckage. Experts have said people could possibly survive for 72 hours if there were air pockets in the compartments.

Earlier Sunday, dozens of angry families of those missing staged a sit-in for about two hours on the island of Jindo near the sinking site off the southwest coast after police blocked them from making a protest visit to the presidential office in Seoul.

Some of them scuffled with police, shouting, “Save my children!”

Families are upset that the government mishandled the disaster and has not done enough to save possible survivors. They later broke up voluntarily and agreed to hold talks with Prime Minister Chung Hong-won.

The government has been under strong criticism for bungling its initial response to the accident. It had been unable to figure out exactly how many people were aboard the ship, and it revised the figure, as well as the numbers of those rescued and missing, many times.

Anger was also running high that such a high number of people are missing when there was enough time to save the passengers because it took nearly two hours for the ferry to sink. Families are also outraged that diving operations have been slow and that it took five days to pull the first body from inside the ship.

Early Sunday, the first funerals were held for students from Danwon High School in Ansan near Seoul. The three 17-year-olds were among the 325 students aboard the ship on a school trip to Jeju. Dozens of the students have been confirmed dead, and most of the missing are also students from the same school.

Funerals for two teachers were also held.

The vice principal of the school, who led the students on the ferry trip, killed himself last Friday apparently out of guilt that he has been rescued while hundreds of his students remain unaccounted for.

An investigation is under way into what exactly caused the ship to go down when weather was good. Police have arrested the ship’s 69-year-old captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two other crew members Saturday on suspicions of negligence and violation of maritime law.

An inexperienced third mate was steering the ferry at the time of the sinking.

An initial focus of the probe has been on suspicions that the ship made too sharp a turn for unclear reasons, leading its cargo, which has not been fastened tightly enough, to shift to one side and getting the entire ship to lose its balance.

An official of the probe team said they have almost ruled out the possibility of the boat hitting a submerged rock. Initial reports said the vessel could have hit an underwater rock based on survivors’ accounts that they heard a thumping sound before it started to list.

The captain has also been a target of public outrage as he was one of the first to leave the sinking ferry. Survivors also said that they were told to stay put where they were several times even when the ship was tilting and sinking.