MOKPO, South Korea — Divers recovered more than a dozen bodies from inside a ferry that sank off South Korea, pushing the confirmed death toll to 49, officials said today.
The discovery came after rescuers finally gained access to the inside of the ship following three days of failure and frustration caused by strong currents and bad visibility due to inclement weather.
More than 250 people are still missing, and the captain of the ferry has been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Two crew members also were taken into custody, including a rookie third mate who a prosecutor said was steering in challenging waters unfamiliar to her when the accident occurred.
Late Saturday, divers broke a window in the submerged ferry and initially retrieved three bodies, said Kim Kwang-hyun, a coast guard official. These apparently were the first bodies recovered from inside the ferry since it sank Wednesday.
Hundreds of civilian, government and military divers were involved in the search.
Meanwhile, on an island near the submerged ferry, about 200 police in neon jackets blocked about 100 relatives of missing passengers who’d been walking on a main road in an effort, they said, to travel to the presidential Blue House in Seoul to voice their complaints to the president.
“The government is the killer,” they shouted as they pushed against a police barricade.
The ferry’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested along with one of the Sewol’s three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third mate, prosecutors said.
The Sewol had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday with 476 passengers on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south, including 323 students from Danwon High School in Ansan. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore a little before 9 a.m. Wednesday. Most of the missing passengers are believed to be trapped inside the 6,852-ton vessel.
With the chances of survival increasingly slim, it is shaping up to be one of South Korea’s worst disasters. The loss is more keenly felt because of so many young people, ages 16 or 17, on board. The country’s last major ferry disaster was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.
By the time the evacuation order was issued, the ship was listing at too steep an angle for many people to escape the tight hallways and stairs inside. Several survivors said they never heard any evacuation order.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin told reporters that the third mate was steering the ship Wednesday morning as it passed through an area with lots of islands clustered close together and fast currents. According to investigators, the accident came at a point where the ship had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.
Mr. Yang said the third mate has six months of experience, and hadn’t steered in the area before because another mate usually handles those duties. She took the wheel this time because heavy fog caused a departure delay, Mr. Yang said, adding that investigators do not know whether the ship was going faster than usual.
Helmsman Park Kyung-nam identified the third mate as Park Han-kyul. The helmsman who was arrested, 55-year-old Cho Joon-ki, spoke to reporters outside court and accepted some responsibility.
“There was a mistake on my part as well, but the steering had been turned much more than usual,” Mr. Cho said.
According to the court, Mr. Lee faces five charges, including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, and the two other crew members each face three related charges.
Mr. Lee was required by law to be on the bridge helping his crew when the ferry passed through tough-to-navigate areas, said Mr. Yang, the senior prosecutor.
Video aired by Yonhap showed Mr. Lee among the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.