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Captain Apologizes As Death Toll Rises In S. Korea Ferry Accident

A relative sits in a gymnasium in Jindo, South Korea, where the families of people who are aboard the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol have gathered to await news from the recovery effort.
Ed Jones
AFP/Getty Images
A relative sits in a gymnasium in Jindo, South Korea, where the families of people who are aboard the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol have gathered to await news from the recovery effort.

This post was updated at 7:25 p.m.

Divers recovered more bodies early Sunday in South Korea, from the wreckage of a ferry that sank earlier this week. The number of confirmed dead has now risen to 46. Since the ship sank on Wednesday, difficult conditions have complicated recovery efforts; heavy cranes have arrived that can shift the ferry, but officials say they'll wait to use them until they're sure none of the hundreds still missing managed to survive.

"They've been dealing with next to zero visibility, very strong currents," NPR's Anthony Kuhn tells Wade Goodwyn on Weekend Edition Saturday. "Also, they've been trying to pump air into that ship, in the hopes that there are some survivors hanging on in air pockets."

The captain of the Sewol, a 6,852-ton ferry, has been criticized for allowing 30 minutes to pass before giving an evacuation order. And days after the disaster, Lee Jun-Seok, 69, was arrested along with two crew members. He is charged with negligence of duty and other offenses.

The ferry began to sink on its way to a resort island off South Korea's southern coast Wednesday with 476 people on board, including 325 high school students.

About 174 people reportedly survived. Desperate efforts to find anyone who might have survived in air pockets within the ship were plagued by poor visibility in the water and strong currents.

After the accident, crew members say the ship turned more sharply than usual. Experts believe the ferry was doomed when its cargo shifted, causing it to list at an angle from which it couldn't recover. South Korea's Yonhap news agency says that officials don't believe an external cause, such as a large rock or other object, played a role.

Here's how we've described the sinking:

"At first, survivors say, they were told to stay in place. It was 30 minutes or so, they report, before the order was given to abandon ship. By then, many of those on board reportedly couldn't get to lifeboats because the ship had tilted too far. Within two hours, the ferry had capsized."

After he was arrested, the captain apologized. As the BBC reports:

"I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims," he said.

"I gave instructions regarding the route, then I briefly went to the bedroom and then [the sinking] happened," he said.

"The current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without proper judgement, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties," he said.

The captain added that at the time, rescue ships had not yet arrived on the scene.

Yonhap reports that an analysis of the list of known survivors finds that a large percentage of the crew escaped the sinking wreck, including all 15 who were tasked with steering the ferry. Less than a quarter of the high school students who were aboard the ferry have been found alive, the agency says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.