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South Korea ferry disaster: Divers struggle to open blocked ferry cabins

Published on May 4, 2014 11:02 AM
 
A diver jumps into the sea near an area where the capsized passenger ship Sewol sank during a rescue operation in Jindo on April 25, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean dive teams struggled on Sunday to gain access to blocked cabins of a submerged ferry that sank nearly three weeks ago, as the confirmed death toll from the disaster rose to 242.

Six more bodies were recovered early on Sunday, 18 days after the 6,825-tonne Sewol capsized and sank with 476 people on board - most of them schoolchildren - while 60 remain unaccounted for.

"Rescuers using some equipment are trying to open blocked cabins," spokesman Ko Myeong Suk told a morning briefing.

The search has been hampered by fast currents and high waves, while dive teams have been working in challenging and sometimes hazardous conditions.

They have to grope their way down guiding ropes to the sunken ship, struggling through narrow passageways and rooms littered with floating debris in silty water.

As days go by, personal belongings and other items from the ship have been spotted further and further away, fuelling concerns that some victims of the ferry disaster may never be found.

One body was retrieved on Friday by a fishing vessel four kilometres away from the recovery site, and another was found two kilometres away on Wednesday.

As a precaution, recovery workers have put rings of netting around the site.

Bedding materials from the ship were found as far as 30 kilometres from the disaster site on Friday.

It is one of South Korea's worst peacetime disasters, made all the more shocking by the loss of so many young lives.

Of those on board, 325 were students from the same high school in Ansan city, just south of Seoul.

Public anger has focused on the captain and crew members who abandoned the ship while hundreds were trapped inside, and on the authorities as more evidence emerges of lax safety standards and possible corruption among state regulators.

The captain and 14 of his crew have been arrested.

The Sewol's regular captain, who was off duty on the day of the accident, has told prosecutors that the ferry operator - Chonghaejin Marine Co - "brushed aside" repeated warnings that the 20-year-old ship had stability issues following a renovation in 2012.

Two Chonghaejin officials were arrested on Friday on charges of having the ferry overloaded well beyond its legal limit.

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