MOKPO, South Korea – The confirmed death toll from South Korea’s ferry disaster rose past 50 on Sunday as divers finally found a way inside the sunken vessel, quickly discovering more than a dozen bodies in what almost certainly is just the beginning of a massive and grim recovery effort.
About 250 people are still missing from the ship, the vast majority of them high school students who had been on a holiday trip. Anguished families, waiting on a nearby island and fearful they might be left without even their loved ones’ bodies, have vented their fury, blocking the prime minister’s car during a visit and attempting a long protest march to the presidential Blue House.
The ferry Sewol sank Wednesday off South Korea’s southern coast, but it took days for divers to get in because of strong currents and bad visibility due to foul weather. Beginning late Saturday, when divers broke a window, and continuing into Sunday, multiple teams of divers have found various routes into the ferry, discovering bodies in different spots, coast guard official Koh Myung-seok said at a briefing. Thirteen bodies have been found in the ship, while six other bodies were found floating outside Sunday, bringing the official death toll to 52, the coast guard said.
Divers, who once pumped air into the ship in the slim hope that survivors were inside, have yet to find anyone alive there.
A 21-year-old South Korean sailor, surnamed Cho, also died from injuries he sustained Wednesday while working on a warship going to help rescue passengers in the ferry, said Cmdr. Yim Myung-soo of the South Korean navy.
The penetration by divers into the ferry follows the arrest of the captain Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Two crew members also were taken into custody, including a rookie third mate who a prosecutor said was steering in challenging waters unfamiliar to her when the accident occurred.
The Sewol sank during a trip from port of Incheon to the southern holiday island of Jeju with 476 people on board, including 323 students from Danwon High School in Ansan. The 16- and 17-year-old students make up only 75 of the 174 survivors, and about 225 of the missing. At least 23 of those confirmed dead are students, according to coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in.
On Jindo island near the submerged ferry, about 200 police in neon jackets blocked about 100 relatives of missing passengers who’d been walking on a main road in an effort, they said, to travel to the presidential Blue House in Seoul to voice their complaints to the president. The relatives have been staying at gymnasium on the island, waiting for word of their loved ones.
“The government is the killer,” they shouted as they pushed against a police barricade.
“We want an answer from the person in charge about why orders are not going through and nothing is being done,” said Lee Woon-geun, father of missing passenger Lee Jung-in, 17. “They are clearly lying and kicking the responsibility to others.”
Earlier Sunday morning, relatives of the missing blocked the car of Prime Minister Chung Hong-won and demanded a meeting with President Park Geun-hye, as Chung made a visit to Jindo. Chung later returned to the gymnasium, but met only with a number of representatives of the family members in a side office.
Relatives are desperate to retrieve bodies before they decompose beyond recognition, Lee said.
“After four or five days the body starts to decay. When it’s decayed, if you try to hold a hand it might fall off,” he said. “I miss my son. I’m really afraid I might not get to find his body.”
The cause of the sinking remains under investigation, but prosecutors say the ship made a sharp turn just before it began to list. The captain, Lee Joon-seok, initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and took at least half an hour to issue an evacuation order. By that time, the ship was listing at too steep an angle for many people to escape the tight hallways and stairs inside.
Lee faces five charges, including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, and the two arrested crew members each face three related charges.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said Lee violated the law because he was not on the bridge helping his crew when the ferry passed through the tough-to-navigate area where it sank. He also said Lee abandoned people in need of help and rescue; video shows Lee among the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.
Yang said the two crew members arrested failed to reduce speed near the islands and failed to carry out necessary measures to save lives. Prosecutors will have 10 days to decide whether to indict the captain and crew, but can request a 10-day extension from the court.
Three vessels with cranes arrived at the accident site to prepare to salvage the ferry, but they will not hoist the ship before getting approval from family members of those still believed inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.