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Cries of anguish as death toll tops 100 in ferry disaster

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Ahn Young-joon / AP

A weeping relative of a passenger aboard the sunken Sewol ferry prays as she awaits news on her missing loved one at a port in Jindo, South Korea, Tuesday, April 22, 2014.

Updated Tuesday, April 22, 2014 | 10:28 a.m.

South Korea Sinking Ship

In this image taken from video released by News Y via Yonhap, passengers from a ferry sinking off South Korea's southern coast, are rescued by a South Korean Coast Guard helicopter in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Nearly 300 people were still missing Wednesday several hours after the ferry carrying 477, most of them high school students, sank in cold waters off South Korea's southern coast. Launch slideshow »

JINDO, South Korea (AP) — For a moment there is silence in the tent where bodies from the ferry disaster are brought for identification. Then the anguished cries begin.

The families who line up here to view the decomposing bodies have not known for nearly a week whether they should grieve or not. Now that they know, they sound like they're being torn apart.

"How do I live without you? How will your mother live without you?" a woman cried out Tuesday.

She was with a woman who emerged from the tent crying and fell into a chair where relatives tried to comfort her. One stood above her and cradled her head in her hands, stroking her face.

"Bring back my daughter!" the woman cried, calling out her child's name in agony. A man rushed over, lifted her on his back and carried her away.

The confirmed death toll from the April 16 disaster off South Korea's southern coast reached 113 on Tuesday, officials said, and about 190 people were still missing. Four crew members accused of abandoning the ship and failing to protect the passengers were arrested, three days after warrants were issued for the captain and two other crew.

The victims are overwhelmingly students of a single high school in Ansan, near Seoul. More than three-quarters of the 323 students are dead or missing, while nearly two-thirds of the other 153 people on board the ferry Sewol survived.

The number of corpses recovered has risen sharply since the weekend, when divers battling strong currents and low visibility were finally able to enter the submerged vessel.

Emergency task force spokesman Koh Myung-seok said bodies have mostly been found on the third and fourth floors of the ferry, where many passengers seemed to have gathered. Many students were housed in cabins on the fourth floor, near the stern of the ship, Koh said.

One by one, coast guard officers carried the newly arrived bodies covered in white sheets from a boat to a tent on the dock of Jindo island Tuesday.

The bodies are then driven in ambulances to two tents: one for men and boys, the other for women and girls. Families listen quietly outside as an official briefs them, then line up and file in. Only relatives are allowed inside.

Bodies are being identified visually, but family members have been providing DNA samples in case decomposition makes that impossible.

Twenty-two of the 29 members of the ferry's crew survived, and nine of them have been arrested or detained in connection with the investigation.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members were arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said a court issued arrest warrants Tuesday for four other crew members authorities had detained a day earlier. Two additional crew members were detained Tuesday.

The four crew members arrested Tuesday talked to reporters after a court hearing, their faces hidden with caps, hooded sweatshirts and masks.

One said they tried to correct the ferry's listing early on but "various devices, such as the balance weight, didn't work. So we reported the distress situation, according to the captain's judgment, and tried to launch the lifeboats, but the ferry was too tilted and we couldn't reach."

The captain has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived. But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck — where they would have had a greater chance of survival — without telling them to abandon ship.

The cause of the disaster is not yet known. Senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said investigators are considering factors including wind, ocean currents, freight, modifications made to the ship and the fact that it turned just before it began listing. He said authorities will conduct a simulation and get experts' opinions.

A Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries official had said Friday that the vessel had taken a sharp turn. But on Tuesday a ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity saying he wasn't authorized to speak to the media, said the ministry now has more complete details about the ship's path.

Data transmitted by the Sewol's automatic identification system, an on-board transponder used for tracking, show that the ship made a J-shaped turn.

The ministry official said AIS data received by a central station was incomplete because the ship's signal was weak, and that it missed more than three minutes of tracking. More complete data, retrieved from a base station in Mokpo, show that over the course of most of that time, the ship was making a roughly 180-degree turn.

Although the fisheries ministry released those details only on Tuesday, Ahn said prosecutors previously had complete details about the ferry's path.

It remains unclear why the ship turned around. The third mate, who was arrested Saturday, was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time.

Shareholders of the Sewol's owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., apologized in a statement that was distributed to reporters outside the office in Incheon, saying they feel "infinite sadness and responsibility."

"We will humbly accept all responsibility for this accident and we will not hesitate to do anything to console the pain of victims and grieving families even a little bit," said the statement from Yu Dae-kyun, Yu Hyuk-gi and others who are de facto owners of Chonghaejin. The company's president had apologized earlier.

In Ansan, funerals were held for more than 10 of the teens Tuesday, and education officials were building a temporary memorial that they expected to complete by Wednesday.

At the city education office, parents issued a letter pleading for more government help in the search, and condemning its response so far. The letter also criticized media for reporting false rumors, and for doggedly pursuing interviews with surviving children.

"The children say that when they look at the window, sudden fear of water seizes them. What the children need is utmost stability," said Jang Dong-won, father of a rescued female student.

On Jindo island, Lee Soo-ha, whose son remains missing, said parents like him "feel as if we're suffocated because we can't do anything to help." He said he thinks the government has handled the search poorly but added, "we don't have any alternative."

"The most urgent problem is the rescue. Later, after the urgent problem is solved, we can care about investigating the reason why this happened," Lee said. "And then we can judge how the government responded to the problem."

Kim reported from Mokpo, South Korea. Associated Press writers Youkyung Lee in Incheon, Kyeongmin Lee in Jindo, Chang Yong-jun in Ansan, and Foster Klug, Jung-yoon Choi and Leon Drouin-Keith in Seoul contributed to this report.

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