MOKPO, South Korea - Divers have recovered more than a dozen bodies from inside a ferry that sank off South Korea, pushing the confirmed death toll to 49, officials said Sunday. 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 300 people are missing or dead, 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, Kim Kwang-hyun, a coast guard official, said Sunday. Those apparently were the first bodies recovered from inside the ferry since it sank Wednesday. Later Sunday, government officials said 10 more bodies had been found inside the ferry. Officials said 256 people were missing, most of them high school students on a holiday trip.
Details about how divers managed to enter the ship and where the bodies were found or their identities were unclear. Government officials said the bodies were found inside the ferry but did not immediately provide other details.
Hundreds of civilian, government, and military divers were involved in the search.
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.
"I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance, and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims," Lee told reporters Saturday morning as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed. But he defended his much-criticized decision to wait about 30 minutes before ordering an evacuation.
"At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties," Lee said. "The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time."
The Sewol had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 323 students from Danwon High School in Ansan among its passengers. It capsized within hours of the crew's distress call to the shore a little before 9 a.m. Wednesday.
With only 174 known survivors and the chances of survival increasingly slim, the disaster is shaping up to be one of South Korea's worst, made all the more heartbreaking by the likely loss of so many young people, ages 16 or 17. The country's last major ferry disaster was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.