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(2nd LD) Death toll from sunken ferry tops 100

2014/04/22 14:45

JINDO, South Korea, April 22 (Yonhap) -- The confirmed death toll from South Korea's worst ferry accident in over 20 years surpassed 100 on Tuesday, with nearly 200 people still missing amid stepped-up search operations.

The death toll from the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol hit 108 early Tuesday as divers retrieved 21 more bodies as their search focused on decks of the five-story vessel, where most of those unaccounted for are believed to have been trapped.

On the previous day, a total of 28 bodies were recovered from the section.

Divers and rescue workers are searching for the missing inside a sunken ferry in waters off South Korea's southwest coast on April 22, 2014, as the operations entered their seventh day. (Yonhap)

Divers and rescue workers are searching for the missing inside a sunken ferry in waters off South Korea's southwest coast on April 22, 2014, as the operations entered their seventh day. (Yonhap)

"Underwater operations will focus on the third and fourth floors, while vessels will search waters to prevent bodies from drifting away," the government disaster management team said in a briefing. "Search operations will go smoothly as waves in the rescue site are forecast to be about 0.5 meter high, and the speed of the currents is slow."

   Divers have established five underwater routes guiding divers to the wreck, and plan to add more to speed up the operation, officials said. The rescue team also dispatched two remotely operated vehicles into the sea for the second day to assist with the search operation.

The operations have transited from rescue to recovery and identification as hopes of finding any survivors were fading rapidly as none of missing passengers have been found alive since the ship sank off the southwestern island of Jindo on Wednesday.

Of the 476 people on board, only 174 passengers, including the ferry's captain and most of its crew, were rescued as the boat listed due to what is believed to have been a faster than usual turn.

While the search had been hampered by bad weather, murky water and strong current, operations are expected to gather steam this week as the weather in the area finally turned favorable.

The government task force team handling the disaster said rescue workers will continue to search around-the-clock as weather conditions have improved, by mobilizing a total of 212 boats, 34 aircraft and 550 rescue workers.

Ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to South Korea later this week, the Pentagon on Monday said it is sending a salvage ship, USNS Safeguard, toward the peninsula from Thailand in case it is needed.

USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship, is already helping with the search of survivors.

Authorities earlier said they will lift the ship from the sea only with consent from families of the missing, some of whom may feel a tinge of hope for survivors.

Weather in the area was forecast to be mild, with waves expected to reach between 0.5 and 1 meter, and wind blowing at a speed of 5 to 8 meters per second.

On Monday, family representatives staying in a gymnasium in Jindo Island pressured the rescue team to wrap up the search in the next few days while the weather allowed.

While corpses have been brought to hospitals in nearby port city of Mokpo, bereaved families have struggled to find beds because dozens of bodies have been retrieved from the upturned ship in the past few days.

On Tuesday, family representatives of missing passengers and five government agencies agreed to establish temporary mortuaries at Paengmok Port on Jindo Island for funeral services.

Coast Guard officials have conducted DNA testing to identify the retrieved bodies, comparing samples from victims and their relatives. Such testing has been conducted in a more stringent manner after one of the corpses was sent to a wrong place last week.

But the move sparked angry responses from some families because they considered providing DNA samples as acknowledging that their loved ones are dead. Scuffles broke out in hospitals when authorities asked relatives to prove family relationship before handing over bodies to them.

In response to the backlash, the government task force team said it will simplify the identification process to return the bodies to their families as soon as possible.

While the government announced the ill-fated ship was carrying a total of 476 people, the recent discovery of the body of a Chinese passenger who was not included in the list of passengers fueled doubt over the counting.

The government had announced different numbers of passengers on board and repeatedly changed the number of survivors in the bungled disaster response in the early stages of the ship sinking.

On Monday, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries also corrected its earlier conclusion that the sunken ferry made a sharp turn shortly before the disaster.

Data from the Sewol's automatic identification system revealed that the vessel made a J-shaped turn, not a 115-degree sharp turn, before listing heavily and ultimately sinking last week, the ministry said.

ejkim@yna.co.kr

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