Divers made multiple trips into the sunken ferry Sewol to recover bodies on Sunday at the site of one of the nation’s worst disasters in at least two decades.
Starting late Saturday, rescue workers recovered 29 bodies from inside the capsized ferry and nearby waters off the coast of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province. As of 6 p.m. Sunday, the death toll stood at 58, while 244 remained missing.
About 560 divers took turns going underwater during the day, focusing on searching for passengers. More than 204 Navy, Coast Guard and private vessels and 34 aircraft also searched the area, officials said.
With currents slowing and five underwater routes set up to guide divers to the wreck, the pace of the underwater search operations is considered likely to pick up from Sunday.
However, as more than four days having passed since the sinking, hopes for finding survivors have been dampened, with experts judging that the it is only possible to survive in an air pocket for about 72 hours.
|Ambulances line the street at Paengmok Port in Jindo Island on early Sunday morning. (Yonhap)|
With the incident having an increasing impact across the country, the government declared Gyeonggi Province’s Ansan and Jindo Island special disaster zones.
Ansan is the location of Danwon High School, the students and staff of which made up the bulk of the Sewol’s passengers. There were 325 students and 14 teachers aboard the ship.
Of them, 78 students and two teachers have been rescued.
The ferry was on its way to the southern resort island of Jejudo from the western port of Incheon.
Along with the death toll, it was revealed that the Sewol had given a false report regarding the number of passengers and volume of cargo onboard as it disembarked from Incheon Tuesday night.
In a departure report, Chonghaejin Marine Co. told authorities at the Korea Shipping Association that it had 450 passengers, 24 crew members, 150 vehicles and 657 tons of cargo on board, according to YTN reports on Sunday.
Shortly after the accident on Wednesday, however, the ferry operator announced that the Sewol was carrying 477 people, 180 vehicles and 1,157 tons of cargo.
Although the revelation is fueling speculations that overloading may have been a factor in the sinking, the ferry operator continues to deny the allegations.
“The safety operator goes to the site and checks whether the ship is overloaded or not (before it leaves the port),” a Chonghaejin Marine Co. official said in an interview. He added that he “received a report that the ship was not overloaded.”
The investigation into the cause of the incident was also picking up pace Sunday with authorities resuming the questioning of crew members.
So far, the probe has revealed that the ship’s captain Lee Joon-seok was absent as the third mate -- a 25-year-old identified as Park who had less than one year of experience -- tried to navigate the area’s notoriously fast currents for the first time.
As for the cause of the accident, the authorities suspect that the Sewol sharply changed direction, causing it to tip. The investigators are now concentrating on determining what prompted Park to turn. Lee, Park and the helmsman on duty at the time of the accident are currently under arrest.
Meanwhile, the family members of the missing continued to express anguish at the government’s response to the disaster.
Relatives of the missing have accused the government of haphazard rescue operations, and some 140 individuals faced off with police as they called for a meeting with President Park Geun-hye.
While the controversy grew, the funerals of the first to be recovered from the scene were held on Sunday.
The families of two teachers and four students from Danwon High School bid farewell to their loved ones at separate funerals in Ansan.
The victims included Nam Yun-cheol, a teacher who died while trying to rescue students, and Kim Cho-won, a first-year teacher who died on her birthday.
Families of four other students were to hold funerals on the same day, but postponed the plans, saying that they are considering a joint funeral.
The funeral for the school’s vice principal, who killed himself Friday, will take place Monday.
By Choi He-suk and Suh Ye-seul (email@example.com) (firstname.lastname@example.org)