Dive teams raced on Friday to pull more than 100 bodies from the sunken South Korean ferry as storm clouds loomed and the victims' families angrily pressed officials to wrap up the recovery effort.
The confirmed death toll stood at 181, but 121 people remained unaccounted for – their bodies believed still trapped in the submerged vessel that capsized on April 16 with 476 people on board. Although all hope of finding any survivors has been extinguished, there is still anger and deep frustration among the relatives over the pace of the recovery operation off the southern island of Jindo.
Gentle tides and good weather have helped the dive teams in recent days, but the search conditions inside the ferry are still challenging and rescuers are only managing to retrieve around 30 bodies a day.
Making up the bulk of the passengers on the 6,825 tonne Sewol when it sank were 325 high school students – around 250 of whom are either confirmed or presumed dead.
On Thursday evening, a group of irate parents stormed into the Jindo office of the deputy head of the South Korean coastguard, and roughly manhandled him down to the island harbour. He was kept there most of the night, sitting on the ground, along with coastguard chief Kim Seok-Kyun and Marine Minister Lee Ju-Young, while the relatives accused them of lying about the recovery operation and demanded they bring in more resources. Police made no move to intervene and the three made no attempt to get away, reflecting a reluctance to antagonise the relatives in any way at a time of widespread public anger over the official response to the disaster.
The bereaved families have said they want all the remaining bodies removed from the ferry before the weekend – a demand that is unlikely to be met, especially with a bad weather front moving in. "We know that weather conditions will worsen considerably and currents will become stronger from Saturday," a coastguard spokesman told a press briefing. An earlier coastguard statement said storm warnings could be issued on Saturday or Sunday for the area around the rescue site.
Rescuers have not found a single survivor since 174 people were pulled to safety on the day of the accident. It took divers working in difficult and dangerous conditions more than two days to get into the sunken ferry and two more days to retrieve the first bodies. Many relatives believe some of the victims may have survived for several days in trapped air pockets, but perished in the cold water after no rescue came. As a result some have asked for autopsies to be performed, to see if it would be possible to determine the precise cause and time of death.
The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-Seok, and 10 crew members have been arrested on charges ranging from criminal negligence to abandoning passengers. The captain has been particularly criticised for delaying the evacuation order until the ferry was listing so sharply that escape was almost impossible.
Prosecutors have raided a host of businesses affiliated with the ferry operator, the Chonghaejin Marine Company, as part of an overall probe into corrupt management.