Image via NoCut News: A table set by the families of the South Korean ferry victims
Hopes of finding survivors from the capsized South Korean ferry are dwindling as the death toll reached 159 as of 9 a.m. PST on Wednesday, according to Yonhap News Agency.
As the tragedy reached its one-week mark, 140 people are still missing as divers continue searching through cold and murky waters. Most of the victims were students from Danwon High School who were on a four-day field trip to South Korea’s Jeju Island.
Authorities told the Associated Press that the search operation has now reached a difficult stage of having to break down cabin walls in order to get to certain parts of the ship, where many of the missing are believed to be. They are reluctant to start a “salvage” operation, essentially searching for corpses, trying to be sensitive to families of the missing, some of whom still hold on to hope of finding survivors.
However, other families of the missing want the government at this point to do whatever they can to bring back bodies before they decompose even more.
“It inflicts a new wound for the parents to see the bodies decomposed,” Pyun Yong-gi, whose 17-year-old daughter is among the missing, told AP.
Many of the retrieved bodies reportedly have had broken fingers, presumably from victims attempting to climb the walls to escape as the ferry was sinking.
“We are trained for hostile environments, but it’s hard to be brave when we meet bodies in dark water,” Hwang Dae-sik, one of the search divers, told Reuters.
It is still unclear what caused the ship to capsize. Investigators are looking at factors, such as wind, ocean currents, freight, modifications made to the ship and the fact that it turned just before it began listing, according to AP. Tracking data indicated that the ship made a 45-degree turn, AP reported, and that it turned 180 degrees in the course of three minutes around the period that the ferry began to list.
The vessel’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, who was reportedly among the first to escape, and at least eight other crew members have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Investigators have also searched the offices of Chongjaejin Marine, the ferry’s operator.
Meanwhile, North Korea joined many other foreign governments in offering its condolences in a message sent recently through the two Korea’s Red Cross organizations. “North Korea expresses its deep condolences to many passengers who died or went missing after the ferry Sewol capsized, especially the young students,” the message from North Korea read, according to the JoongAng Ilbo.
Pyongyang stayed silent for a week after the ferry Sewol sunk on April 16 near the island of Jindo, off of the Korean peninsula’s southeastern coast. The last time one of the two Koreas sent its condolences to another was in December 2011, when the South sent its sympathies to the North over the death of its leader Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un.