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(3rd LD) Death toll from sunken ferry tops 100

All Headlines 18:11 April 22, 2014

(ATTN: UPDATES with latest details of search, investigation in 6, 12-14, 24-28 paras)

JINDO, South Korea, April 22 (Yonhap) -- The confirmed death toll from South Korea's worst ferry accident in over 20 years surpassed 100 on Tuesday, with nearly 200 people still missing amid stepped-up search operations.

The death toll from the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol hit 108 Tuesday as divers retrieved 21 more bodies as their search focused on decks of the five-story vessel, where most of those unaccounted for are believed to have been trapped.

On the previous day, a total of 28 bodies were recovered from the section.

(3rd LD) Death toll from sunken ferry tops 100 - 2

"Underwater operations will focus on the third and fourth floors, while vessels will search waters to prevent bodies from drifting away," the government disaster management team said in a briefing. "Search operations will go smoothly as waves in the rescue site are forecast to be about 0.5 meter high, and the speed of the currents is slow."

Divers have established five underwater routes guiding divers to the wreck, and plan to add more to speed up the operation, officials said. The rescue team also dispatched two remotely operated vehicles into the sea for the second day to assist with the search operation.

Tuesday's search was focused on gaining access to the ferry's main dining hall where several bodies are believed to be trapped inside, considering that the accident took place around breakfast time.

The operations have transited from rescue to recovery and identification as hopes of finding any survivors were fading rapidly as none of missing passengers have been found alive since the ship sank off the southwestern island of Jindo on Wednesday.

Of the 476 people on board, only 174 passengers, including the ferry's captain and most of its crew, were rescued as the boat listed due to what is believed to have been a faster than usual turn.

While the search had been hampered by bad weather, murky water and strong current, operations are expected to gather steam this week as the weather in the area finally turned favorable.

The government task force team handling the disaster said rescue workers will continue to search around-the-clock as weather conditions have improved, by mobilizing a total of 212 boats, 34 aircraft and 550 rescue workers.

Ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to South Korea later this week, the Pentagon on Monday said it is sending a salvage ship, USS Safeguard, toward the peninsula from Thailand in case it is needed.

An amphibious assault ship, USS Bonhomme Richard, which was dispatched to the scene shortly after the accident to assist the rescue efforts, departed waters around Jindo later Tuesday after completing its one-week mission, the U.S. Seventh Fleet said.

Rescue crews have positioned large cranes near the scene, but authorities said they will lift the capsized ship from the sea only with consent from families of the missing, some of whom may feel a tinge of hope for survivors.

Coast guard and Navy divers accelerated their search under growing pressure from relatives of the victims as weather in the area was forecast to be mild in the next three days. Strong wind and rain are expected in the region over the weekend, according to the state weather agency.

While corpses have been brought to hospitals in nearby port city of Mokpo, bereaved families have struggled to find beds because dozens of bodies have been retrieved from the upturned ship in the past few days.

Family representatives of missing passengers and five government agencies agreed to establish temporary mortuaries at Paengmok Port on Jindo Island for funeral services.

Coast Guard officials have conducted DNA testing to identify the retrieved bodies, comparing samples from victims and their relatives. Such testing has been conducted in a more stringent manner after one of the corpses was sent to a wrong place last week.

But the move sparked angry responses from some families because they considered providing DNA samples as acknowledging that their loved ones are dead. Scuffles broke out in hospitals when authorities asked relatives to prove family relationship before handing over bodies to them.

In response to the backlash, the government task force team said it will simplify the identification process to return the bodies to their families as soon as possible.

While the government announced the ill-fated ship was carrying a total of 476 people, the recent discovery of the body of a Chinese passenger who was not included in the list of passengers fueled doubt over the counting.

The government had announced different numbers of passengers on board and repeatedly changed the number of survivors in the bungled disaster response in the early stages of the ship sinking.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries also corrected its earlier conclusion that the sunken ferry made a sharp turn shortly before the disaster.

Data from the Sewol's automatic identification system revealed that the vessel made a J-shaped turn, not a sharp 115-degree turn, before listing heavily and ultimately sinking last week, the ministry said.

On Tuesday, the joint investigation team arrested one more member of the crew, bringing the total number to five the ill-fated vessel's staffers charged with not fulfilling their duty to safely evacuate passengers.

The ferry's captain, who was among the first who escaped the sunken ship, was arrested and charged with negligence of duty and abandoning his passengers over the weekend.

The move came as the large death toll has partly been blamed on the captain's instruction to make passengers stay in the cabin even when the ship was severely tilting and crew members were escaping from the ship ahead of others.

President Park Geun-hye on Monday strongly criticized the captain and some of his crew for leaving hundreds of passengers behind and deserting the sinking ship, saying what they did amounted to an act of "murder."

As part of the investigation, prosecutors said they have banned a total of 30 officials of the ferry's operator and members of the owner family from leaving the country to determine whether they violated safety inspection regulations.

ejkim@yna.co.kr
(END)

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