SEOUL — The official death toll in South Korea’s ferry disaster rose to 36 early Sunday. In a sign that hope had run out for finding survivors, authorities have asked relatives of the missing to provide DNA samples to expedite the task of identifying bodies.
More than 260 people were still listed as missing and the ship remained submerged off the southern coast. Cranes to hoist the vessel upright were brought to the site, but strong currents prevented authorities from deploying them.
Korean coast guard official Kim Kwang-hyun told the Associated Press that divers had retrieved three bodies from inside a ferry by breaking a window, raising the death toll to 36 people.
Meanwhile, in comments made to reporters during his police arraignment and broadcast on Saturday, the captain explained the decision to tell passengers — including hundreds of high school students — to remain seated after the vessel began taking on water and eventually sank Wednesday.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, said the decision was made out of fear that passengers would be swept away if they went out on deck. He also noted that at the time of the announcement rescue boats had not yet arrived. However, that failed to explain why he was among the first off the boat; in cases of such a disaster, South Korea’s Seafarers Act requires the captain to remain on the ship until passengers are off.
Lee and two of his subordinates have been arrested as authorities investigate how the ship capsized and whether the crew followed proper evacuation procedures.
The Sewol was en route from Incheon, on South Korea’s northwest coast, to the southern resort island of Jeju when it turned sharply, listed and began taking on water.
Borowiec is a special correspondent.