POSTED: 03:36 p.m. HST, Apr 22, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 03:54 p.m. HST, Apr 22, 2014
JINDO, South Korea » The confirmed death toll from the South Korean ferry disaster rose to 135 Wednesday, but there were many more bodies left to be retrieved as divers swam through tight, dark rooms and passageways to search for nearly 170 people still missing.
The victims are overwhelmingly students of a single high school in Ansan, near Seoul. More than three-quarters of the 323 students are dead or missing, while nearly two-thirds of the other 153 people on board the ferry Sewol when it sank one week ago survived.
As descriptions of the newly recovered bodies were read over a loudspeaker, relatives rushed over to the main notice board and peered at the details that were being added by an official.
Some relatives cried out and ran from the tent. Others stood red-eyed and shell-shocked.
The number of corpses recovered has risen sharply since the weekend, when divers battling strong currents and low visibility were finally able to enter the submerged vessel.
Twenty-two of the 29 members of the ferry's crew survived, and nine have been arrested or detained in connection with the investigation.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members were arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Four other crew members were detained on Monday and arrested Tuesday, prosecutors said. Another two crew members were detained Tuesday.
The four crew members arrested Tuesday talked to reporters after a court hearing, their faces hidden with caps, hooded sweatshirts and masks.
One said they tried to correct the ferry's listing early on but "various devices, such as the balance weight, didn't work. So we reported the distress situation, according to the captain's judgment, and tried to launch the lifeboats, but the ferry was too tilted and we couldn't reach."
The captain has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived. But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck — where they would have had a greater chance of survival — without telling them to abandon ship.
Emergency task force spokesman Koh Myung-seok said bodies have mostly been found on the third and fourth floors of the ferry, where many passengers seemed to have gathered. Many students were housed in cabins on the fourth floor, near the stern of the ship, Koh said.
Recovered bodies are taken to nearby Jindo island and driven in ambulances to two tents: one for men and boys, the other for women and girls. Families listen quietly outside as an official briefs them, then line up and file in. Only relatives are allowed inside.
For a moment there is silence in the tent where bodies from the ferry disaster are brought for identification. Then the anguished cries begin.
"How do I live without you? How will your mother live without you?" a woman cried out Tuesday.
She was with a woman who emerged from the tent crying and fell into a chair where relatives tried to comfort her. One stood above her and cradled her head in her hands, stroking her face.
"Bring back my daughter!" the woman cried, calling out her child's name in agony. A man rushed over, lifted her on his back and carried her away.
The cause of the disaster is not yet known. Senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said investigators are considering factors including wind, ocean currents, freight, modifications made to the ship and the fact that it turned just before it began listing. He said authorities will conduct a simulation and get experts' opinions.
The Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries had released incomplete data on the turn last week a central station did not receive all the signals the Sewol's on-board transponder had sent. It released more complete details on Tuesday with data received by another station, and those show that the ferry spent about three minutes making a roughly 180-degree turn shortly before it began to list.
It remains unclear why the ship turned around. The third mate, who was arrested Saturday, was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time.
Shareholders of the Sewol's owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., apologized in a statement that was distributed to reporters outside the office in Incheon, saying they feel "infinite sadness and responsibility."
"We will humbly accept all responsibility for this accident and we will not hesitate to do anything to console the pain of victims and grieving families even a little bit," said the statement from Yu Dae-kyun, Yu Hyuk-gi and others who are de facto owners of Chonghaejin. The company's president had apologized earlier.
In Ansan, funerals were held for more than 10 of the teens Tuesday, and education officials were building a temporary memorial.