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Death toll hits 87 as divers pull more bodies from sunken ferry

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

JINDO/SEOUL/ANSAN, South Korea, April 21 (Yonhap) -- Coast Guard, Navy and civilian divers recovered more than 20 bodies Monday from a sunken ferry off South Korea's southwest coast as they stepped up a search for missing passengers.

The death toll from the capsized ferry Sewol rose to 87 as of 10 p.m., Monday, including three foreign victims, as divers focused their search on the third and fourth decks of the five-story vessel, where most of those unaccounted for are believed to have been trapped.

Hundreds of divers struggled to search inside ship for 215 people who remain missing after the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol capsized off the southwestern coast of Jindo on a foggy Wednesday morning.

Of the 476 people on board, only 174 passengers, including the ferry's captain and most of its crew, were rescued after the boat, en route from the western port city of Incheon to the southern resort island of Jeju, listed due to what is believed to have been a sharper than usual turn.

The dining hall on the third floor, in particular, has been cited as one of several areas where many of the passengers are expected to be found, along with lounges and shopping areas.

"So far, divers have set up a total of five guide lines. Multiple rescue workers have been trying to enter inside the boat at the same time to speed up operations," said Ko Myeong-seok, a spokesman for the government task force handling the disaster, referring to lines that help workers move down to and inside the sunken vessel.

Rescue workers discovered a passage to the dining hall area after overnight operations, he said, adding that divers will carry out their operations around-the-clock as weather conditions have improved.

Among those recovered later in the day were the bodies of three foreign passengers -- a Russian student surnamed Serkov and a Chinese couple in their late 30s. Two female Filipino entertainers aboard the ship were safely rescued.

Improved working conditions, with low waves and winds, raised expectations for progress in the operations, but any hope of finding survivors is faint as none of the missing passengers have been found alive since Wednesday.

While the authorities have been trying to muster support from international experts, the rescue team successfully dispatched two remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) from the United States in search operations for the first time, but they failed to find anything.

Three experts from the Netherlands were to participate in the search operations, while the authorities have asked Japanese officials in charge of building the ill-fated Japanese-built ship to visit the site, as well as the Chinese authorities for barges and cranes, according to the team.

Divers have expressed concern that bodies underwater could soon be damaged beyond recognition, vowing their utmost efforts to find the missing.

"If more time passes, the chances are high that bodies down there will decay," a civilian diver participating in the operations said.

Currently, the temperature of the surface where the ferry capsized is around 13 degrees Celsius. The temperature 30 to 35 meters under the surface where the Sewol rests is around 8 degrees Celsius.

Bodies begin to decompose after 72 hours underwater when the temperature is 7 degrees Celsius, according to experts.

"Due to low visibility, we are just feeling our way to recover the bodies," the civilian diver said. "We will do everything to find possible survivors and to recover bodies."

More than 300 of the passengers aboard the Sewol were students from a high school in Ansan, just south of Seoul, who were on a field trip to the southern resort island of Jeju. Angry parents and families have lambasted the government, accusing it of bungling its initial response to the accident.

A senior home affairs ministry official raised the ire after he tried to have a commemorative group photo taken near a situation room on the southwestern island of Jindo on Sunday.

He tendered his resignation earlier in the day, and the government accepted it on Monday.

The Sewol's 69-year-old captain, Lee Jun-seok, has also come under public fire after video footage showed he was one of the first people to escape the sinking ferry.

Lee and two other crew members were put under arrest Saturday on suspicion of negligence of duty and violation of maritime law.

President Park Geun-hye strongly rebuked the ship's crew and vowed to uncover all irregularities involved in the ferry's operations. She also vowed to ensure all those involved in wrongdoing take "criminal and civil" responsibility regardless of their rank.

With probe into crew members and officials of the Sewol's operator, Cheonghaejin Marine Co., under way, investigators also arrested four more crew members, including the chief engineer, on suspicion of abandoning the passengers and violation of disaster relief law, and put them under investigation.

Of the four, a first mate surnamed Kang reportedly made radio contact with the vessel traffic service (VTS) on Jindo shortly after the ferry sent a distress signal on Wednesday morning, asking whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned the ship.

According to a transcript of their communication released earlier, the Jindo VTS ordered the ferry to take emergency steps to evacuate passengers, but no such measures were apparently taken.

So far, investigators have also banned a total of 44 crew members and Cheonghaejin officials, including its chief and its largest shareholder, from leaving the country.

Survivors have shown serious symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to hospital officials, with a few scuffles occurring between families of survivors and those of victims or the missing.

In Ansan, a series of funerals were held for the vice principal of the high school whose students boarded the ferry as well as some of its students. The vice principal, who had been rescued from the ship, committed suicide two days after the accident, leaving a message that he couldn't bear to live when so many of his students were dead or missing.

The education office of Gyeonggi Province, which has jurisdiction over Ansan, said it is considering building a memorial park for the students who died in the sinking at the request of their families.

Citizens nationwide held a candlelight vigil, hoping for the safe return of those who remain missing.

"We will pray for the safe return of the missing passengers. I hope we can console families desperately waiting for their loved ones," a citizen said, participating in the vigil in the city of Ansan, where the school of the student victims is located.

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