The confirmed death toll from South Korea’s ferry disaster crossed 100 yesterday, as dive teams accelerated the grim task of recovering hundreds more bodies from the submerged vessel, under growing pressure from bereaved relatives.
Improved weather and calm seas spurred their efforts, but underwater visibility was still very poor, requiring divers to grope their way blindly though the corridors and cabins of the ferry that sank last Wednesday.
Nearly one week into the rescue and recovery effort, close to 200 of the 476 people aboard the 6,825-tonne Sewol — most of them high-school students — are still unaccounted for. The official toll stand at 108, with 194 still missing.
The victims’ distraught families gathered yesterday at Jindo harbor awaiting the increasingly frequent arrival of boats with the most recently recovered bodies.
“I just want my son back,” said the father of one missing student. “I need to be able to hold him and say goodbye. I can’t bear the idea of him in that cold, dark place.”
The disaster has profoundly shocked South Korea and the sense of national grief has been underwritten by an equally deep, but largely unfocused anger that has been vented toward anyone in authority.
Coastguard officials have been slapped and punched, senior politicians — including South Korean Prime Minister Jung Hong-won — pushed and heckled, and rescue teams criticized for being slow.
If there is a chief hate figure, it is Sewol captain Lee Joon-seok, who was arrested over the weekend and charged with criminal negligence and abandoning his passengers. Six members of his crew are also under arrest.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has described the actions of Lee and his crew as being “tantamount to murder.”
Four of the detained crew were paraded — faces hidden — before TV cameras yesterday and asked why only one of the ferry’s 46 life rafts had been deployed.
“We tried to gain access to the rafts, but the whole ship was already tilted too much,” one said.
The Sewol capsized after making a sharpright turn and the large death toll has partly been attributed to Lee’s instruction to passengers to stay where they were for about 40 minutes after the ferry ran into trouble.
Crew members said the late evacuation order meant that by the time they got off the bridge, the ship’s tilt was so great they could barely walk, let alone rescue passengers, and so faced the dilemma of fleeing or helping those trapped below.
Although Lee and some of his crew did flee the ferry, at least seven of the 29-strong crew are missing or dead, and several of those who survived stayed on or near the ship to help passengers.
“His last words were: ‘I’m on my way to save the kids,’” Ahn So-hyun told reporters, describing what her husband, missing crew member Yang Dae-hong, told her by cellphone as the ship began to sink.
Passenger Koo Bon-hee, 36, told reporters there were not enough life jackets for everyone on the third floor, so two male and two female crew members did not wear any so more passengers could have one.
One of the first bodies recovered was that of 22-year-old crew member Park Ji-young, who helped students evacuate until the last minute, even though she was not wearing a life vest, media reported.
Witnesses told the Yonhap news agency that Park Ji-young told students that crew members must stay on the ship until everyone else leaves and that she would follow them after helping passengers.