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20 Apr, 2014 00:04

Death toll in S. Korean ferry disaster rises to 64 as divers find more bodies

Death toll in S. Korean ferry disaster rises to 64 as divers find more bodies

Divers have recovered more than two dozen bodies from the South Korean ferry that capsized on Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 64. Almost 240 people, most of them high school students, are still unaccounted for.

Rescue divers were finally able to get inside the ferry after numerous failed attempts, media quoted officials as saying. Strong currents and poor visibility made it difficult for the search and rescue operation to take place. On Sunday divers eventually found a passage into the submerged ship. The death toll rose from 33 to 64 in the space of a mere 24 hours.

"At 11:48 p.m. (14:48 GMT) the joint rescue team broke a glass window and succeeded in getting inside the vessel," the South Korean government said in a statement.

Search efforts recovered the bodies overnight and authorities said that cranes would be used to lift the ship in order to locate the other bodies.

On Sunday a leaked transcript was released which revealed confusion and indecision among officials after the ship began listing dangerously. One crew member expressed concern that lifeboats could not be utilized because of the severity of the situation. Jindo Vehicle Traffic Service asked "how are the passengers doing?" and a crew member of the Sewol replied, "it's so listed that they are not able to move."

Several people followed captain's initial orders to remain below deck. The transcript demonstrated that there had been confusion over whether passengers could be rescued if they evacuated the ship, despite the fact that a civilian ship was in the area which had already told Jindo VTS that anyone who went overboard would be rescued.

"Please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing," a VTS official urged at 9:24 am. "If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?" asked the crew member. "At least make them wear life rings and make them escape," VTS stated. The crew member then reiterated his question about whether evacuees could be rescued. The service said that patrol boats would be in the area in 10 minutes but neglected to mention the civilian ship.

The South Korean government is facing a backlash from angry relatives of ferry victims. Up to 100 people clashed with police as they tried to march from the southwestern island of Jindo, the center of the rescue operations, to the mainland via a bridge towards the capital of Seoul.

Police blocked their way by forming two lines as protesters began to push and shove, Reuters reported.

A family member of a passenger missing after the South Korean ferry "Sewol" capsized is blocked by police during a protest in Jindo calling for a meeting with President Park Geun-hye and demanding the search and rescue operation be speeded up, April 20, 2014. (Reuters / Kim Kyung Hoon)

Earlier, relatives were gathered at a gymnasium in Jindo, where they have spent the past four days awaiting news.

The ferry capsized while on its way from Incheon, in the northwest, to the southern resort island of Jeju. It was carrying over 400 people. Rescuers have so far managed to save 179 passengers.

The disaster is now being referred to as South Korea's deadliest vessel accident in 21 years.

The captain of the ferry, Lee Joon-seok, was arrested on Saturday and is facing a total of five charges, the most serious being negligence of duty and violation of maritime law.

A family member of missing passengers (C) who were on the South Korean ferry Sewol which sank in the sea off Jindo, cries as she found the name of her family in the list of fatalities at a port where family members of missing passengers gathered, in Jindo April 20, 2014. (Reuters / Issei Kato)

The captain explained that his delayed order to evacuate was due to the fact that there were no rescue ships nearby at the time and people could have been swept away by strong currents.

“At the time, the current was very strong, temperature of the ocean water was cold and I thought that if people left the ferry without proper judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties," he said.

Also, Lee Joon-seok appeared on South Korean television on Thursday to deliver a message to the families devastated by the disaster. "I am really sorry and deeply ashamed. I don't know what to say," he said.

Earlier, investigators revealed that the captain of the vessel was not at the helm at the time of the incident, and had left his third officer in command. Local authorities issued arrest warrants for Lee, the officer left in charge, and one other crew member, for not providing proper assistance to the passengers during the accident.

Two crew members were also detained, including the third officer who was in command of the ferry at the time of the incident.

The vice principal of Danwon High School – who was responsible for the care of hundreds of high school students on the ferry trip – committed suicide, police confirmed on Friday. Kang Min-gyu was found hanging from a tree on the island of Jindo, where the parents of students who are still missing are staying. Kang was rescued from the ferry before it sank and is believed to have taken his own life out of guilt.

Divers are continuing their search, with 256 people still unaccounted for. The cause of the accident still remains unknown, although investigators suspect that the vessel could have struck a rock or made a sharp turn, causing it to overturn.

South Korean rescue workers carry the body of a passenger onboard the capsized passenger ship Sewol, at a port where family members of missing passengers are gathered, in Jindo April 19, 2014. (Reuters / Issei Kato)

The South Korean government has been criticized for its handling of the incident. A spokesperson for the aggrieved families spoke out against the authorities in a television broadcast on Friday morning, accusing the government of lying to them.

"The government lied yesterday," he said. "Is this the reality of South Korea? We plead once more, please save our children.”

The spokesperson alleged that the South Korean government has lied about the size of the rescue effort, claiming that it is actually much smaller.

Amateur footage of the moment when the ship began to capsize has been posted online. It shows how the passengers were told to stay put on the ship, even when it started to tilt. Some critics have argued that if an order to evacuate had been issued earlier, more people could have been saved.