Korea ferry death toll rises to 121

April 23, 2014 - 12:00:00 am
People attend a vigil for the missing passengers in central Ansan yesterday.

JINDO:  The confirmed death toll from South Korea’s ferry disaster rose sharply to more than 120 yesterday as divers speeded up the grim task of recovering bodies from the submerged ship, while police took two more of its crew into custody.

Better weather and calm seas spurred their efforts but underwater visibility was still very poor.

Nearly one week into one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters, close to 200 of the 476 people who were aboard the 6,825tonne Sewol — most of them schoolchildren — are still unaccounted for. The official toll stood at 121, with 181 still missing.

Distraught families of victims gathered in the morning at the harbour on Jindo island — not far from the disaster site — awaiting the increasingly frequent arrival of boats with 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, a proudly modernised nation that thought it had left behind large-scale accidents of this type. The ferry’s captain, Lee Joon-Seok, was arrested and charged with criminal negligence and abandoning his passengers.

Six members of his crew are also under arrest and prosecutors said two more were taken into police custody yesterday.

President Park Geun-Hye, who faced a hostile crowd when she met relatives on Jindo last week, has described the actions of Lee and his crew as being “tantamount to murder”.

Four of the detained crew were paraded —  heads bowed and faces hidden — before TV cameras yesterday, and asked why only one of the Sewol’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 of them responded.

The large death toll has partly been attributed to the captain’s instruction for passengers to stay where they were for around 40 minutes after the ferry ran into trouble. 

By the time the evacuation order came, the ship was listing so badly that escape was almost impossible. Giant floating cranes have been at the disaster site off the southern coast for days, but many relatives remain opposed to raising the ferry before all the bodies have been removed.