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(2nd LD) Death toll from sunken S. Korean ferry hits 171

2014/04/24 17:06

JINDO, South Korea, April 24 (Yonhap) -- Search operations of the sunken South Korean ferry on Thursday focused on its third- and fourth-deck cabins, where most of the missing victims are believed to be trapped, during the last remaining critical hours of favorable weather conditions.

Coast Guard, Navy and civilian rescue workers continued to search the inside of the 6,825-ton Sewol that capsized and sank in southwestern waters on April 16, recovering 12 more bodies as of later Thursday.

"Most of the corpses were retrieved were from cabins on the fourth floor and stairway leading to the third floor in the previous day," the task force team said in a briefing. "Rescue workers will search the third and fourth decks of the ferry throughout the day."

The confirmed death toll rose to 171, but 131 others were still unaccounted for. The missing, most of whom were high school students on a school trip, are believed to be trapped inside the fourth floor of the upturned vessel in waters off Jindo Island.

Of the 476 people on board, only 174 passengers, including the ferry's captain and most of its crew, were rescued.

The number of corpses retrieved from the submerged vessel has risen sharply since the weekend as weather condition turned favorable, though divers still battled low underwater visibility to find those missing.

As high tide and rain are expected from Friday, relatives with diminishing hopes of finding more survivors pressured the government to finish the search by Thursday, because no one has been found alive since the ship's sinking.

Weather in the area was forecast to be mild, with waves expected to reach 0.5 meter, and wind blowing at a speed of 4 meters to 7 meters per second. Rescue workers, however, had to swim through dark water as underwater visibility was poor.

The rescue crew last week positioned three large cranes near the scene, but the task force said it will lift the capsized ship from the sea only with the consent of all families of the missing.

As the search operation continued round-the-clock in the past few days, divers are increasingly suffering exhaustion, with some of them treated for decompression sickness after swimming in cold, dark waters for long hours.

The government said it will prepare safety measures for rescue workers who navigate the murky water through the ferry's corridors and cabins in a grim operation that turned from searching survivors to retrieving dead bodies.

Among 29 members of the ferry's crew, 20 including Captain Lee Joon-seok have been arrested or detained on charges of negligence of their duties and abandoning the passengers.

The 69-year-old captain is facing sharp criticism as he told the passengers to stay inside the cabin even though the ship was severely tilting and later fled the ship with the crew ahead of other passengers.

Furthermore, it became known that the first distress call to authorities was made by a student on board, not by a crew member. Coast Guard on Thursday said the Danwon High School student who made the first call was confirmed dead as his body was retrieved from the cabin on the fourth floor the previous day.

Prosecutors have raided offices of the operator of a sunken ferry and its affiliates as part of a widening probe into the cause of the disaster and whether there were irregularities related to modification made to the ship among other considerations.

As the fruitless search for survivors entered its second week, families who have yet to find bodies of their loved ones expressed deep frustration as others who have found the corpses left the gym where they had been staying at.

A temporary altar was established in Ansan, south of Seoul, where the school is located, to mourn the deaths of hundreds of student victims. Over 13,000 people have paid tearful respects to victims of the ferry disaster on the first day, officials said.

A week after the temporary closure of Danwon High School, students submerged in the sorrow of losing their friends returned to the classroom.

Among 505 senior students, 480 attended a therapy session in the morning, while 24 others, some of them from bereaved families, attended funerals. Most of the victims were sophomore students who were on a routine school trip to the resort island of Jeju.

North Korea on Wednesday delivered its condolences to the victims of the disaster through the truce village of Panmunjom, according to South Korea's unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs.

Pyongyang had not mentioned the tragic accident in the past week while condolences and support poured in from the international community.

The message came at a time when the communist state was spotted preparing to conduct a fourth nuclear test in a move seen as aimed at drawing international attention ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's planned to visit to South Korea later this week.

ejkim@yna.co.kr

(END)

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