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(2nd LD) Death toll rises to 213 from sunken S. Korean ferry

2014/05/01 23:02

JINDO, South Korea, May 1 (Yonhap) -- Divers ripped open one cabin door after another Thursday to search for more than 80 people missing in the sinking of a ferry 16 days ago, officials said, as prosecutors continued their probe to find out the cause of one of South Korea's worst maritime disasters.

Rescue workers retrieved eight more bodies from the ill-fated Sewol, raising the confirmed death toll to 213, the government emergency response team said. A total of 81 people still remained unaccounted for.

Of the 476 passengers aboard the 6,825-ton ferry, 174 people, including the captain and most of his crew members, were rescued on the day of the accident, but no one has been found alive since.

Braving strong winds, high tides and strong currents, rescue workers resumed search operations for the missing for the 16th day, which was also hampered by debris and poor visibility.

They, however, faced difficulty searching the inside of the vessel that capsized on April 16 in waters off South Korea's southwestern island of Jindo.

To speed up the search, a specially designed airtight steel chamber, called a diving bell, was mobilized early Thursday, but the equipment was withdrawn about two hours later.

"The diving bell was put into (operation) for nearly two hours," Koh Myung-seok, a spokesman of the government disaster task force, told a press briefing.

The diving bell has been recommended as a new tool to carry divers deeper and help them stay longer underwater to search parts of the ship that have not been scoured, but it failed to offer a breakthrough in the search effort.

Lee Jong-in, head of Alpha Diving Technology who earlier fueled a heated debate on efficiency of the diving bell, admitted that the device was not helpful in searching for those missing.

"The diving bell failed (in the search mission)," Lee told reporters. "I apologize for disappointing families of the missing people and creating confusion to rescue workers."

   Divers, who first focused their search through cabins that were already open, will forcibly open doors of closed sections starting Sunday at the earliest, the officials said.

"(The divers) will continue searching unclosed compartments and some parts of the common areas where many passengers are believed to trapped by the end of next weekend," Koh said.

Meanwhile, representatives of the bereaved families of students killed in the disaster headed to Jindo to show support for other families who have not found their loved ones yet.

A total of 325 students and 14 teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul, were on board the ferry. Of them 176 students and four teachers were confirmed dead, with the remaining 82 still unaccounted for.

Authorities investigating the cause of the disaster said Thursday that they are questioning two officials of the ferry's operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co.

A joint team of prosecutors and police in Mokpo, a southwestern port city located near the sinking site, has been looking into the possibility that cargo overloading and illegal redesigning of the ship may be responsible for the disaster.

The two officials allegedly loaded the ferry with too much cargo despite knowing the risks associated with a ship whose ability to right itself had been significantly weakened through repeated remodelings to increase passenger capacity, they said.

The team said it plans to seek arrest warrants for the two Chonghaejin officials, including a board of director surnamed Ahn, sometime soon for further questioning.

With the whole nation still in shock and grief, tens of thousands of citizens flocked to an official mourning altar in Ansan, home to Danwon high school, and other memorial centers across the nation.

As of Thursday, over 230,000 people visited the Asan mourning altar to pay their respects to the victims in one of the country's deadliest maritime accidents.

In Seoul, about 9,000 people visited a temporary altar set in front of City Hall to pay condolences. In the past five days, some 90,000 people have mourned for the victims at the memorial altar, according the Seoul Metropolitan Government.

Marking International Labor Day which falls on Thursday, labor unions held a rally in downtown Seoul but the mood was somber because of the ferry disaster.

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