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Anger boils over as relatives of S. Korea ferry victims attack official

Relatives of missing passengers visit the site of the sunken South Korean ferry 'Sewol' at sea off Jindo on April 24, 2014
Relatives of missing passengers visit the site of the sunken South Korean ferry 'Sewol' at sea off Jindo on April 24, 2014

Furious relatives of missing victims from South Korea's ferry disaster attacked a top coastguard official on Thursday, accusing him of lying about efforts to retrieve bodies still trapped in the submerged vessel.

Around 20 relatives forced their way into the office of Choi Sang-Hwan, the Deputy Director of the Korea Coastguard, and pulled him outside, ripping his shirt and punching and slapping him around the face and neck.

The relatives accused Choi of exaggerating the scale of the recovery effort, saying the scene they witnessed during a boat trip to the disaster site earlier Thursday did not match with his briefings.

The bereaved families have continually criticised what they see as delays in the rescue and recovery operation and a lack of committed resources.

The crowed held Choi until other officials arrived and then subjected them to a lengthy grilling on the recovery operation.

Rescue teams take part in recovery operations at the site of the sunken South Korean ferry 'Sewol', marked with buoys, at sea off Jindo on April 24, 2014
Rescue teams take part in recovery operations at the site of the sunken South Korean ferry 'Sewol', marked with buoys, at sea off Jindo on April 24, 2014

The confirmed death toll on Thursday stood at 171, but 131 were still missing as dive teams searched in near pitch-black conditions for bodies trapped in the ferry's interior.

More than a week after the 6,825 tonne Sewol capsized and sank with 476 people on board, most of them high school students, there is still widespread anger over the pace of the initial rescue effort.

It took divers working in difficult and dangerous conditions more than two days to get into the sunken ferry and two more days to retrieve the first bodies.

Many relatives believe some of the victims may have survived for several days in trapped air pockets, but perished in the cold water after no rescue came.

As a result some have asked for autopsies to be performed, to see if it would be possible to determine the precise cause and time of death.

- Autopsy queries -

South Korean rescue team members carry the body of a victim recovered from the 'Sewol' ferry to an ambulance at a harbour in Jindo on April 23, 2014
South Korean rescue team members carry the body of a victim recovered from the "Sewol" ferry to an ambulance at a harbour in Jindo on April 23, 2014

"We have received a number of enquiries about autopsies," said a member of the forensic team on Jindo island working on identifying the bodies recovered from the disaster site.

An official responsible for legal and medical issues at the emergency situation desk on Jindo said there was nothing to prevent families having an autopsy carried out.

"But to my knowledge, nobody has so far actually brought a body to the National Forensic Service to have this done," the official said.

The belief that some passengers might have survived the initial capsize was very strong in the days immediately after the Sewol sank on April 16, fuelled in part by fake postings on social network sites that claimed to be text messages from passengers begging to be rescued.

Of the 476 people on board, 325 were students from Danwon High School in Ansan city just south of Seoul.

A man prays in front of a makeshift memorial at the main gate of Danwon high school in Ansan on April 24, 2014, attended by many of the schoolchildren missing in the sunken South Korean ferry 'Sewol'
A man prays in front of a makeshift memorial at the main gate of Danwon high school in Ansan on April 24, 2014, attended by many of the schoolchildren missing in the sunken South Korean ferry "Sewol"

The school, which has remained closed for the past week, resumed classes for its senior class on Thursday.

Kim Hyong-Ki, the spokesman for a representative committee set up by the relatives, confirmed that some parents were pushing for autopsies.

"They want to know for certain how their family members died," Kim said.

"That said, most people oppose it because they can't bear the idea of the bodies being damaged any more.

"My daughter's body is still out there in the sea, but I don't want anyone dissecting it after it is recovered," he said.

Hundreds of yellow ribbons were tied Thursday to the guard rail on the quayside of Jindo harbour, some with simple handwritten messages like "I miss you" and "Farewell".

- Yellow ribbons at the harbour -

A coastguard official said divers were concentrating on accessing cabins on the third and fourth decks in their grim search for more bodies.

According to the Yonhap news agency, one of the bodies recovered was of a high school student who made the first distress call from the ferry.

The student, identified by his surname Choi, had called the emergency 119 number at 8:52 am, three minutes before the crew sent their first distress signal.

The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-Seok, and 10 crew members have been arrested on charges ranging from criminal negligence to abandoning passengers.

The captain has been particularly criticised for delaying the evacuation order until the ferry was listing so sharply that escape was almost impossible.

A senior engineer on the ferry said there had been "no problems" with the ferry's engines or ballast tanks.

Some reports have suggested the ferry did not take on sufficient ballast to counter its cargo weight.

The ship capsized after executing a sharp turn, which may have triggered a shift in the cargo and caused the vessel to list beyond a critical point of return.

Prosecutors have raided a host of businesses affiliated with the ferry operator, the Chonghaejin Marine Company, as part of an overall probe into corrupt management.

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