Bodies pulled out of Sewol

Disaster area declared

The death toll rose sharply over the weekend as divers started recovering bodies from the submerged ferry Sewol.

No survivors were found despite desperate search-and-rescue operations.

Out of the total 476 passengers and crewmembers, 174 were rescued and 58 have been confirmed dead, while 244 still remained unaccounted for as of 11 p.m. Sunday. Some 30 remains were recovered Saturday and Sunday.

The number of the fatalities doubled after the rescue team started pulling out bodies from the 6,825-ton ferry, which sank early Wednesday off the southwestern coast.

Most passengers were students from Danwon High School in Ansan, near Seoul, who were on a trip to Jeju Island.

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won chaired a meeting of related ministries Sunday to designate Ansan, and Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province, as special disaster zones.

The designation, which instantly won President Park Geun-hye’s approval, will enable the government to carry out fast-track emergency budgetary allocations and other assistance measures such as tax exemptions for the families of the victims.

The recording of the Sewol’s communications with Jindo’s vessel traffic service were also released. By and large, the two sides wasted a critical 30 minutes through ineffective ship-to-shore radio exchanges.

The removal of the bodies from the Sewol came after days of fruitless efforts by more than 500 divers, including civilians to get into the capsized ship in the face of strong tidal currents and poor visibility.

As the Coast Guard adds more guide ropes for divers, more bodies are expected to be found. State-of-the-art facilities including a mega-sized floating dock will be also mobilized.

At the same time, the slim hopes of the families are seemingly fading away.

They desperately stuck to the possibility that the large vessel’s air pockets would still have some survivors. But more and more are asking for the recovery of bodies before they decompose beyond recognition.

The Coast Guard, however, made it clear that it will focus on search-and-rescue work for the time being instead of using cranes to hoist the Sewol to retrieve bodies. Lifting the wreck is feared to jeopardize the lives of potential survivors if any.

The progress in search efforts follows the arrest of Captain Lee Joon-seok early Saturday on five charges together with two other crewmembers who were on the bridge when the tragedy took place.

Capt. Lee was in his cabin at the time of the accident, leaving the helm to a 25-year-old novice third mate who had never sailed the particular route. He faces a possible life sentence for manslaughter.

Lee left the ship early on without evacuating passengers, leaving hundreds trapped in the listing boat.

As rescue teams failed to find any survivor 100 hours after the accident, family members became angry _ 72 hours was the maximum survival period given by experts.

Some of them tried to leave a gymnasium on Jindo Island where they have been camped out since Wednesday to travel to Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul to protest.

Their first attempt early Sunday prompted Prime Minister Chung to try to calm them down. Hours later, they tried once again to penetrate a police barricade.

President Park visited the site of the accident on Thursday and saw the tip of the Sewol’s bow, before it completely submerged the next day, and visited the Jindo gym to promise to mobilize all means available to rescue passengers.

However, the families have complained that the government is not doing enough and is not providing detailed explanations on the search-and-rescue efforts.

The authorities failed to count the number of passengers and those rescued and missing accurately, issuing multiple corrections, the latest being Friday.

Korea’s worst maritime catastrophe in decades claimed another life Sunday when a 21-year-old sailor died from injuries incurred during the rescue operation, just two months before he finishes his mandatory military service.

The country’s last major ferry calamity was in 1993, when 292 people were killed. By Kim Tae-gyu The korea times

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