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(5th LD) Death toll from sunken ferry reaches 121

All Headlines 23:54 April 22, 2014

(ATTN: UPDATES with latest death toll)

JINDO, South Korea, April 22 (Yonhap) -- The confirmed death toll from South Korea's worst ferry accident in over 20 years surpassed 120 on Tuesday, with 181 people still missing despite accelerated search operations.

The death toll from the sinking of the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol rose to 121 as of Tuesday night as divers retrieved a total of 30 bodies from the five-story vessel earlier in the day.

(5th LD) Death toll from sunken ferry reaches 121 - 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.

Divers have established five underwater routes guiding divers to the wreck, and plan to add more to speed up the operation, officials said. The 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 transitioned from rescue to recovery and identification as hopes have all but vanished that any passengers will be found alive. No survivors have been found 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 after the boat capsized 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 currents, operations are expected to gather steam this week as the weather in the area finally turned favorable.

The government task force handling the disaster said search workers will continue to work around-the-clock as weather conditions have improved. It said it is mobilizing a total of 212 boats, 34 aircraft and 550 search 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 have a slight hope that there are still 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 for 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 the 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 the wrong place last week.

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

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 has fueled doubt about the authorities' tally.

The government has announced different numbers of passengers on board and repeatedly changed the number of survivors.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries also recanted its earlier conclusion that the sunken ferry made a more than 90-degree 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.

Also Tuesday, a court issued warrants to formally arrest four crew members as prosecutors and police widened their probe into one of South Korea's worst maritime disasters.

Park Jong-hwan, a judge at the Mokpo branch of Gwangju District Court, said the four -- two first mates, one second mate and a chief engineer -- should be held in custody, citing the possibility that they could be a flight risk or destroy evidence.

The move brought to seven the number of crew members formally arrested on charges of negligence and violation of maritime law.

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.


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