Divers retrieved 16 bodies on Sunday from inside the submerged South Korean ferry that capsized four days ago with hundreds of children on board, opening a grim new chapter in the search and recovery process.
The recovery of the first bodies from the interior of the ferry came after prosecutors revealed that the officer at the helm of the 6,825-tonne Sewol when it capsized on Wednesday was not familiar with those particular waters.
The confirmed death toll from the disaster now stands at 49 with 253 people still unaccounted for. Three bodies were pulled out of the fully submerged ferry just before midnight and another 13 were recovered later Sunday on morning, a coastguard spokesman said.
The breakthrough followed days of fruitless efforts by more than 500 divers to access the interior of the capsized ship, while battling powerful currents and near-zero visibility. Their recovery looks set to dash the slim hopes of distraught relatives who had clung desperately to the idea that some passengers may have survived in air pockets in the upturned vessel.
The bodies were placed in tents at the harbour on Jindo island – not far from the disaster site – where the relatives have been camped out in a gymnasium since the ferry went down. In a process that looks set to be repeated with tragic frequency in the coming days, the bodies were checked for IDs and other particulars, after which their relatives were informed and asked to make an official identification.
Trauma of identification
Some of the policemen standing guard at the tents were openly weeping, while the cries of the relatives could be heard from inside.
Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 350 were high school students headed for the holiday island of Jeju.
Although officials have not ruled out the possibility of finding survivors, the emergency operation is clearly transitioning from one of rescue to recovery, and many relatives have provided DNA samples to facilitate identification. Three giant floating cranes have been at the disaster site off the southern coast of South Korea for days, but the coastguard has promised it will not begin lifting the ferry until it clear there is nobody left alive.
Investigators have arrested the ferry's captain, Lee Joon-Seok who has been bitterly criticised for abandoning hundreds of passengers still trapped in the ferry, as they made their own escape. Also detained were a 55-year-old helmsman and the ship's young and relatively inexperienced third officer, identified by her surname Park, who was in charge of the bridge when the disaster occurred.
Tracking data shows the ship took a radical right turn while navigating through a group of islets off the southern coast. Such a sharp turn could have dislodged the heavy cargo manifest – including more than 150 vehicles – and destabilised the vessel, causing it to list heavily and then capsize.
Inexperience at the helm?
While Park, 26, had been sailing the Incheon-Jeju for six months, "it was the first time for her to navigate this particular route," a senior prosecutor told reporters on Saturday.
The captain said he was returning to the bridge from his cabin when the ship ran into trouble.
The bereaved families camped out in a gymnasium on Jindo island have sharply criticised the pace of the rescue operation, accusing officials of incompetence and indifference. Only 174 were rescued when the ferry sank and no new survivors have been found since Wednesday.
"The government isn't making any genuine effort to rescue whoever is alive. They're just interested in pulling out dead bodies," said Jang Chul-Soon, 37, whose mother was among the missing.
On Sunday morning, close to 200 relatives set off on what they said was a protest march from Jindo to the presidential Blue House in Seoul – some 420 kilometres (260 miles) to the north. They were prevented from crossing a bridge from the island to the mainland by a force of several hundred police, who turned them back after some minor scuffles.
Questioned as to why passengers had been ordered not to move for more than 40 minutes after the ship first foundered, the captain insisted he had acted in their best interest. "The currents were very strong ... I thought that passengers would be swept far away and fall into trouble if they evacuated thoughtlessly," Lee said.
Experts have suggested many more people might have escaped if they had moved to reach evacuation points before the ship listed sharply and water started flooding in.