Jindo (South Korea) (AFP) – The confirmed death toll from South Korea’s ferry disaster rose sharply to more than 120 Tuesday as divers sped up the grim task of recovering bodies from the submerged ship and police took two more of its crew into custody.
Better weather and calm seas spurred their efforts but underwater visibility was still very poor, forcing divers to grope their way blindly though the corridors and cabins of the ferry that capsized and sank last Wednesday.
Nearly one week into one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters, close to 200 of the 476 people who were aboard the 6,825-tonne Sewol — most of them schoolchildren — are still unaccounted for.
The official toll stood at 121, with 181 still missing.
Distraught families of victims gathered in the morning at the harbor on Jindo island — not far from the disaster site — awaiting the increasingly frequent arrival of boats with bodies.
In the initial days after the Sewol went down, their anger was focused on the pace of the rescue effort.
With all hope of finding any survivors essentially gone, this has turned to growing impatience with the effort to locate and retrieve the bodies of those trapped.
“I just want my son back,” said the father of one missing student. “I need to be able to hold him and say goodbye. I can’t bear the idea of him in that cold, dark place.”
The disaster has profoundly shocked South Korea, a proudly modernized nation that thought it had left behind large-scale accidents of this type.
The sense of national grief is accompanied by an equally deep but largely unfocused anger that has been vented towards pretty much anyone in authority.
Coastguard officials have been slapped and punched, senior politicians — including the prime minister — pushed and heckled, and rescue teams criticized for their slow response.
If there is a chief hate figure, it is the ferry’s captain Lee Joon-Seok, who was arrested at the weekend and charged with criminal negligence and abandoning his passengers.
Six members of his crew are also under arrest and prosecutors said two more were taken into police custody on Tuesday.
President Park Geun-Hye, who faced a hostile crowd when she met relatives on Jindo last week, has described the actions of Lee and his crew as being “tantamount to murder”.
Four of the detained crew were paraded — heads bowed and faces hidden — before TV cameras on Tuesday, and asked why only one of the Sewol’s 46 life rafts had been deployed.
“We tried to gain access to the rafts but the whole ship was already tilted too much,” one of them responded.
The Sewol capsized after making a sharp right turn — leading experts to suggest its cargo manifest might have shifted, causing it to list beyond a critical point of return.
The large death toll has partly been attributed to the captain’s instruction for passengers to stay where they were for around 40 minutes after the ferry ran into trouble.
By the time the evacuation order came, the ship was listing so badly that escape was almost impossible.
A transcript released Sunday of the crew’s final communications with marine transport control illustrated the sense of panic and confusion on the bridge before the ferry sank.
Captain Lee has insisted he acted in the passengers’ best interest, delaying the order to abandon ship because he feared people would be swept away and drowned.
Nearly 750 divers, mostly coastguard and military, are now involved in the operation.
“The weather is better, but it’s still very difficult for the divers who are essentially fumbling for bodies in the silted water,” a coastguard official told reporters.
A priority for Tuesday was to access the ferry’s main dining hall.
“We believe there are many bodies there as the accident took place in the morning when students must have been eating breakfast,” the official said.
Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 352 were students from the Danwon High School in Ansan city just south of Seoul, who were on an organised trip to the holiday island of Jeju.
Among the bodies recovered so far were those of three foreign nationals — believed to be a Russian and two Chinese.
Giant floating cranes have been at the disaster site off the southern coast for days, but many relatives remain opposed to raising the ferry before all the bodies have been removed.
Yao Qilin/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT