SEOUL — The official death toll in South Korea’s ferry disaster rose to 49 early Sunday after divers gained access to the submerged vessel and recovered more than a dozen bodies.
Government officials reported that divers had retrieved the bodies by breaking a window on the vessel, but it was unclear whether they had gained entry to the ship.
In a sign that hope had run out for the survival of any of the 256 listed as missing, officials asked relatives of those aboard to provide DNA samples to expedite the identification of bodies.
Cranes to hoist the vessel have arrived at the site, but strong currents impeded their deployment.
Meanwhile, in comments made to reporters during his police arraignment and broadcast Saturday, the ferry’s captain explained the decision to tell passengers, including hundreds of high school students, to remain seated after the vessel listed and began taking on water Wednesday.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, said he feared that passengers would be swept away from open decks and noted that rescue boats had not arrived when he made the announcement. He did not explain why he was among the first people off the boat. South Korea’s Seafarers Act requires the captain to remain on a foundering ship until passengers are evacuated.
Lee and two 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.