FOSTER KLUG and HYUNG-JIN KIM, AP
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, which had been packed with high school students on a holiday trip, and anguished families are furious with the pace of rescue efforts. Divers had previously failed to enter the ferry, officials said, because of extremely 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.
At least 23 of the dead are students, according to coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in. Divers have yet to find any survivors in the ship.
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.
Meanwhile, on an 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 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,” Lee Woon-geun, father of missing passenger Lee Jung-in, 17, said. “They are clearly lying and kicking the responsibility to others.”
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won on Sunday visited the gymnasium where relatives of the ferry’s missing passengers have been staying, but he met only with a number of representatives of the family members in a side office. The representatives were to brief other relatives about the meeting later.
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 ferry’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested along with one of the Sewol’s three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third mate, prosecutors said.
Lee, speaking to reporters Saturday morning as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed, defended his much-criticized decision to wait about 30 minutes before ordering an evacuation.
“At the time, the current was very strong, the 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,” Lee said. “The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time.”