Death toll jumps to 139 as divers crank up search efforts

JINDO, South Korea, April 23 (Yonhap) -- Divers recovered 12 more bodies in their intensive search of a capsized South Korean ferry Wednesday with more than 160 passengers still missing, a week after the country's worst maritime disaster in two decades.

The death toll from the sinking of 6,825-ton ferry Sewol jumped to 139 as Coast Guard, Navy and civilian divers recovered the bodies from the cabins on third and fourth decks and the third-deck cafeteria, where most of the missing are believed trapped.

The rescue team halted and resumed operations many times during the night due to relatively strong currents, said officials of the government task force team handling the disaster, adding that the divers successfully entered the cafeteria late Tuesday night.

The team said rescue workers will continue to search around the clock as weather conditions have improved, by mobilizing a total of 212 boats, 34 aircraft and some 550 rescue workers.

Noticeably, a group of 50 civilian divers using surface supplied equipment were put into the search-and-rescue operations as they can stay under water for nearly one hour, said the officials.

There is an air compressor on the surface that continually provides an air to the divers through a hose, which is different from general diving when a diver's equipment is completely self-contained and there is no link to the surface.

The team, meanwhile, said it has decided to withdraw remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and other advanced equipments, including "Crabster," from the scene due to the strong tidal currents.

The team had earlier deployed two ROVs and robots designed for undersea exploration to search inside of the sunken vessel for bodies or possible survivors inside the hull.

The operations have transitioned from rescue to recovery and identification as hopes of finding any survivors have faded rapidly considering that no passenger has been found alive since April 16, the day of the sinking.

Of the 476 people on board, only 174 passengers, including the ferry's captain and most of its crew, were rescued. The boat sank after listing due to making what is believed to be a faster than usual turn.

Weather in the area was forecast to be mild, with waves expected to reach around 0.5 meter, similar to a day earlier, but the water in the area is expected to be murky.

On Monday, family representatives staying in a gymnasium on Jindo Island pressured the rescue team to wrap up the search in the next few days while the weather is favorable.

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