After night fell in Paengmok port on Monday more bodies from the stricken ferry Sewol were brought ashore. Twenty-six more bodies were recovered on Monday and taken for identification.
While divers continued to search the interior of the submerged vessel, the confirmed number of dead rose to 86, according to information from the South Korean coast guard posted for the victims’ families.
About 220 people remain missing after the Sewol sank last Wednesday with 476 souls aboard.
Divers were unable for days to enter the submerged ship because of strong currents, bad weather and low visibility. Over the weekend they were able to use a new entryway through the dining hall, resulting in a jump in the discovery of corpses.
Choi Jin-ho, a professional diver who is part of the search effort, said he managed to enter the vessel and search about ten metres into it before turning back. “I could not see anything in front, nothing in front and the current under water is too fast. Then your breathing gets faster and panic sets in,” he said.
Choi said he found no missing passengers before he began to run out of air.
Relatives of the missing passengers were taken the site of the ship wreck to see the rescue operation process.
Many returned in the evening with tears in their eyes.
Families, and South Koreans more broadly, have at times responded with fury. The captain initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and waited more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order as the Sewol sank. By then the ship had tilted so much it is believed that many passengers were trapped inside.
At a Cabinet briefing Monday, President Park Geun-hye said, “What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. Unforgivable, murderous behavior.” The comments were posted on the website of the presidential Blue House.
Park said that instead of following a marine traffic controller’s instructions to “make the passengers escape,” the captain and some crew members “told the passengers to stay put while they themselves became the first to escape.”
“Legally and ethically,” she said, “this is an unimaginable act.”
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, and prosecutors said Monday that four other crew members have been detained. Senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said prosecutors would decide within 48 hours whether to seek arrest warrants for the four: two first mates, a second mate and a chief engineer.
A transcript of ship-to-shore communications released Sunday revealed a ship that was crippled with indecision. A crew member asked repeatedly whether passengers would be rescued after abandoning ship even as the ferry tilted so sharply that it became impossible to escape.
Lee, 68, has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived. But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck — where they would have had a greater chance of survival — without telling them to abandon ship.
The cause of the disaster is not yet known, but prosecutors have said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list. The third mate, who has been arrested, was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time.
Authorities have not identified the third mate, though a colleague identified her as Park Han-kyul. Senior prosecutor Ahn said Monday that the third mate has told investigators why she made the sharp turn, but he would not reveal her answer, and more investigation is needed to determine whether the answer is accurate.
Many relatives of the dead and missing also have been critical of the government, which drew more outrage Monday with the resignation of Song Young-chur, a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.
Song, chief of the Regional Development Policy Bureau, reportedly tried to take a commemorative photo Sunday evening of the situation room in Jindo where government officials brief relatives of the missing.
Yonhap news agency reported that one family member shouted, “We are a nervous wreck here, and this is something to commemorate for you?”
Blue House spokesman Min Kyung-wook said the government accepted Song’s resignation “as a warning to others, as he has raised public resentment by trying to take commemorative photos without understanding the feeling of the families of the victims and lost persons.”
The search effort on Monday included more than 200 rescue boats, 35 aircraft, 13 fishing boats and 641 personnel, mostly coast guard and navy.
Most of the bodies found have been recovered since the weekend, when divers, frustrated for days by strong currents, bad weather and poor visibility, were finally able to enter the ferry. But conditions remain challenging.
Searchers on Monday deployed a remote-controlled underwater camera dubbed the ROV1 to explore the inside of the ferry. Unlike divers who have to surface after 20 minutes, the U.S.-built camera can be used for two to three hours.
The government-wide emergency task force center issued a statement saying the ROV1 can reach places that are tough for divers to get to, but it added, “We are experiencing difficulty as there is lots of floating matter.”
Relatives have been allowed to observe the search operation in pairs, said Woo, the construction worker who is a relative of a missing student, and was to view the operation Monday.
Woo has been in Jindo, sleeping in his car, since Wednesday. Other relatives of the missing have taken shelter in a gymnasium.
Still others have put up tents near the port, where many sat in silence Monday, their faces blank and shoulders sagging from exhaustion. A Buddhist monk chanted prayers and tapped out a slow percussion on a wooden praying block from his perch at a dock facing the sea, providing a calming rhythm.
Lim Son-mi, who works at a daycare center in Ansan, said some part of her still hopes that her daughter Park Hye-son is alive, no matter how unlikely that would be. Until then, and maybe after, she will be haunted by memories of their last conversation.
“She called me from the ferry and said, ‘Mom, everything is so strange. We’re all wearing life jackets,’ but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I thought it was nothing. I found out only later from the news that it was this serious,” Lim said.
“I should be the one who should die.”
Report compiled with information from The Associated Press.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Mokpo, South Korea, Minjeong Hong and Raul Gallego in Jindo, and Foster Klug, Youkyung Lee, Jung-yoon Choi and Leon Drouin-Keith in Seoul contributed to this report.