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December 19, 2014

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Divers renew search for South Korea ferry dead

Image

Yonhap / AP

A diver jumps into the sea to look for people believed to have been trapped in the sunken Sewol ferry near buoys which were installed to mark the vessel in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea, Friday, April 25, 2014.

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 — Divers on Monday renewed their search for more than 100 bodies still trapped in a sunken ferry after weekend efforts were hindered by bad weather, strong currents and floating debris clogging the ship's rooms. Investigators, meanwhile, expanded a probe into how coast guard and other rescuers responded after learning the ferry was sinking.

Divers found only one body Sunday after a week that saw an increasing number of corpses pulled from the ship as divers made their way through its labyrinth of cabins, lounges and halls. The number of dead from the April 16 sinking is 188, with 114 people believed missing, though a government emergency task force has said the ship's passengers list could be inaccurate. Only 174 people survived, including 22 of the 29 crew members.

Senior coast guard officer Kim Su-hyeon said that most of the remaining missing passengers are believed to be in 64 of the ship's 111 rooms. Divers have entered 36 of those 64 rooms, coast guard officers said, but may need to go back into some because floating debris made it difficult for divers to be sure that there are no more dead bodies.

Ko Myung-seok, an official with the emergency task force, said Monday that 92 divers were searching the ferry. He also said that the government was making plans to salvage the ferry once search efforts end but that details wouldn't be available until officials talk with families of the victims.

On Sunday, South Korea's prime minister resigned over the government's handling of the sinking, blaming "deep-rooted evils" in society for the tragedy.

South Korean executive power is largely concentrated in the president, so Chung Hong-won's resignation appears to be symbolic. Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said President Park Geun-hye would accept the resignation, but did not say when Chung would leave office.

Chung's resignation comes amid rising indignation over claims by the victims' relatives that the government did not do enough to rescue or protect their loved ones. Most of the dead and missing were high school students on a school trip.

Investigators have searched the two service centers that deal with vessel traffic and that communicated with a crew member on the ferry during the sinking. Senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don told reporters Monday that prosecutors also seized documents and recordings from a coast guard office in Mokpo, and would do the same at an emergency call service center that received a call from a student on the ship reporting the sinking. The emergency service center official connected a coast guard official with the student, who local media reports said was later found dead.

Without elaborating, Ahn said prosecutors on Sunday questioned the captain, the third mate and the helmsman who were on the bridge when the ship began listing, as well as another captain of the ferry who was on vacation on the day of accident. Prosecutors also plan to question officials from the company that maintains and inspects life rafts and safety facilities on the ferry. Ahn said prosecutors will focus their investigations on other factors that could have affected the ship's sinking, including cargo stowage and an earlier remodeling of the ship.

Ahn said that while all 15 crew members responsible for the ship's navigation have been arrested, they haven't been formally charged yet because investigations are still going on. The seven surviving crew members who have not been arrested held non-marine jobs such as chef or steward.

The arrested crew members are accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need. Capt. Lee Joon-seok initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and took half an hour to issue an evacuation order, by which time the ship was tilting too severely for many people to get out. Lee told reporters after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for passengers' safety in the cold, swift water.

In video clips released Monday by the coast guard, the captain, wearing only a sweater and underpants is shown leaping from the sinking ferry, which is tilted about 45 degrees, onto a rescue boat. He had reportedly rushed from his cabin to the bridge without fully dressing. He wears no life jacket.

Others people who appear to be crew members slide down from the bridge to the coast guard boat holding ropes. The video shows about half a dozen people who appear to be passengers wearing life jackets in the water near the stern of the ship. Another clip shows about half a dozen coast guard officers trying to smash a window. The window breaks and people with life jackets escape. A rescue raft moves back and forth between the sinking ferry and a rescue boat, transporting people who were hanging onto the ship's rails.

According to Kim Kyung-il, a coast guard official, the ship's crew members did not tell rescuers that they were crew members. Coast guard officers who were on the first rescue boat sent to the area as the ferry sank said Monday that the situation was so urgent that they couldn't check whether the people they were rescuing were crew members or passengers.

Kim and other officers told reporters in Jindo on Monday that they were unable to enter the ship because it was listing too much when they arrived and began rescue operations. The officers said they urged people aboard the ship to escape and jump into the water but it was unclear if any passengers heard them.

The ferry was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo, according to an executive of the company that loaded it. That far exceeds what the captain claimed in paperwork — 150 cars and 657 tons of other cargo, according to the coast guard — and is more than three times what an inspector who examined the vessel during a redesign last year said it could safely carry.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin, said that the cause of the sinking could be due to excessive veering, improper stowage of cargo, modifications made to the ship and tidal influence. He said investigators would determine the cause by consulting with experts and using simulations.

Students from Danwon High School in Ansan, a city near Seoul, make up more than 80 percent of the dead and missing; they had been on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju.

Lee reported from Mokpo, South Korea. Associated Press writers Jung-yoon Choi and Foster Klug in Seoul contributed to this report.

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