(ATTN: UPDATES with reports of government move to declare a special disaster zone in paras 5-8; RECASTS 4th para to highlight discovery of two additional victims)
SEOUL, April 19 (Yonhap) -- Desperate search and rescue efforts for hundreds still unaccounted for in a deadly ferry accident in waters off South Korea's southwestern coast continued for a fourth day on Saturday, with the country clinging to the dim hope of finding survivors.
Some 652 Navy and Coast Guard officers, along with civilian divers, have been battling strong underwater currents and low visibility to reach 273 people believed to be trapped inside the ferry Sewol that sank three days ago.
More than 80 hours have passed since the 6,825-ton ship sank off the southwestern island of Jindo on a foggy Wednesday morning. A total of 476 passengers, including 325 high schoolers on a field trip, were reportedly aboard the ship en route to the southern resort island of Jeju from the western port of Incheon.
The total death toll came to 32 as of 6:30 p.m. Saturday as two additional bodies were discovered in waters near the accident site. Two hundred and seventy others still remain missing, with 174 passengers rescued. No one has been found alive since around Wednesday noon when the ship went under.
The government said it is considering declaring special disaster zones in Ansan, home of the high school whose 250 students remain missing, and Jindo, the site of the sinking.
"There is a need for swift, government-level support for the areas as physical and emotional damages to Ansan city and Jindo-gun are growing," an official from the prime minister's office said.
Once declared special disaster zones, the areas will be entitled to additional government support, including up to 80 percent of the costs associated with the disaster.
Such a declaration is made by the president following a review and approval by a state commission on public safety, the official from the prime minister's office said.
Strong underwater currents, as well as low visibility, were hampering rescue efforts.
"We've yet to get any response from survivors underwater. Divers have continued all-out operations to enter cabins, while pumping air to help them breathe," Coast Guard officer Choi Sang-hwan said.
Experts say people could possibly survive for 72 hours if there are air pockets in the compartments.
"Instead of dispatching two divers at a time, we are to send up to 10 workers at the same time to speed up the job. We are also working to install more guide lines," he said, referring to lines that help workers move inside vessels.
During overnight operations, divers found three dead bodies wearing life jackets inside the cabin on the fourth floor of the five-story ferry, officers said, adding they are trying to break the window to recover them.
Rescue operations in the morning, however, failed to make any noticeable progress, and concerns arouse that worsening weather conditions, including rain, high waves and wind, would hamper the rescue efforts.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, surrounded the shipwrecked spot in a net to prevent bodies of possible victims from being swept away by the strong underwater currents.
The point of the accident occurred in an area named the Maenggol Channel, which is notorious for strong underwater currents.
Efforts are also underway to prevent oil leaked from the sunken ship into the sea from spreading further.
An around 300-meter-long oil plume was spotted surrounding the Sewol in the waters of Jindo. Oil has been leaking from the ferry since late Friday. A total of 203,000 liters of oil, including 139,000 liters of bunker-C oil and 39,000 liters of diesel are thought to be loaded on the ship.
With investigations into what caused the tragedy under way, the joint probe team of prosecutors and police arrested the 69-year-old captain, surnamed Lee, and two other crew members earlier in the day for their negligence of duty and violation of maritime law.
According to the interim probe result announced a day earlier, the captain was not at the steering room when the boat was experiencing trouble. He had given the wheel to an inexperienced third mate in her 20s.
Denying some accounts that he was drinking at the time the ship experienced problems, Lee said he had "gone to his bedroom after giving instructions on which route to follow."
Lee was also accused of abandoning the boat while hundreds of passengers were desperately struggling to find their way out. A public uproar has erupted as crew members repeatedly told the passengers to remain seated though the ship was foundering, stripping them of their chance to escape.
Of the 29 crew members aboard the ferry, 69 percent, or 20 people, survived the deadly sinking, with three dead and six unaccounted for, according to the data by the Sewol's operator, Cheonghaejin Marine Co.
The data also showed that the 15 crewmen in charge of steering were all found to be alive. The deceased and unaccounted for crew members include part-time workers and those with office jobs.
It is in stark contrast to the mere 75, or 23 percent, of the 325 high schoolers on the field trip who escaped the capsized ferry.
While apologizing to victims and their families, the captain said that it was not true that he failed to instruct passengers to leave the vessel.
"I gave such an order (to passengers to evacuate)," captain Lee told reporters upon being arrested, adding he told the people to remain seated "before any rescue vessels had arrived. The water was cold."
The 55-year-old steersman who guided the boat with the female mate said he navigated the ship just as he normally does, but the steering gear "turned exceptionally faster than normal."
Experts and investigators have said a sudden shift of the vessel caused 180 vehicles and 1,157 tons of freight on board to slide to one side, disrupting the balance of the ship.
An official of the probe team also noted that they have almost ruled out a theory that the boat hit a submerged rock, causing the tragedy. Initial reports said the vessel could have hit an underwater rock based upon survivors' accounts that they heard a big thumping sound before it started to lean.
"It appears that there were no external shocks to the ship," an officer said, though they have yet to find what made such a thundering sound.
The investigation team is also planning to investigate some 10 more crew members, as well as officials of the Sewol's operator, according to officers.
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, who is in charge of the pan-government response team, apologized Saturday for causing confusion in the government's handling of the situation.
The government has been under strong criticism for bungling its initial response to the accident. It has been unable to figure out exactly how many people were aboard, and it revised the figure, as well as the numbers of those rescued and missing, many times.
"There has been confusion as the ministries concerned failed to share the information on time and have tried to hurriedly announce any updates without coordination," Chung said, extending his apology to the people.
Stressing that it now has a "well-organized system," the prime minister vowed "to strive to deliver exact information in a swift manner and to lead search operations in a way that doesn't harm any survivors."
(LEAD) Top nuclear envoy leaves for U.S. after Sweden talks break down
Riyadh abuzz with excitement ahead of BTS concert
Top nuclear envoy to leave for U.S. after Sweden talks break down
Dodgers' Ryu Hyun-jin in line for NLDS win after 5 up-and-down innings
N.K. propaganda outlet continues to slam S. Korea after Stockholm talks break down
(LEAD) Moon's approval rating drops to lowest in weekly survey
Riyadh abuzz with excitement ahead of BTS concert
(URGENT) S. Korean prime minister to attend Japanese emperor's enthronement event.
Full text of Inter-American Development Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno's contribution
Young reliever going through trial by fire in KBO postseason
(3rd LD) S. Korean PM to attend Japanese emperor's enthronement event amid soured relations
(LEAD) S. Korean men's football team embarks on journey to N. Korea for World Cup qualifier
S. Korea on alert over potential spread of swine fever via wild boars
BTS rocks capital of Saudi Arabia
(5th LD) Typhoon-caused strong winds hit S. Korea