SEOUL - The confirmed death toll from a sunken South Korean ferry is rising faster as divers penetrate the dark, cold waters inside, feeling for children's bodies with their hands as they swim through a maze of cabins, corridors and upturned decks. The divers, with oxygen and communications lines trailing, can only see a few inches in front of them as they search areas of the ship the children were told to stay for their own safety.
"We are trained for hostile environments, but it's hard to be brave when we meet bodies in dark water," Diver Hwang Dae-sik he told Reuters.
The divers can work for nearly an hour as long as the oxygen lines do not snag on sharp corners of the ship's internal structure. With cumbersome oxygen tanks on their backs instead, they can work for about 20 minutes before an alarm bell sounds.
The Sewol sank last Wednesday on a routine trip from the port of Incheon, near Seoul, to the southern island of Jeju.
Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers on a high school outing. Only 174 people have been rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned. The confirmed death toll on Wednesday was 128, many found at the back of the ship on the fourth deck.
Hwang said his team had retrieved 14 bodies so far. "We have to touch everything with our hands. This is the most gruelling and heartbreaking job of my career," he said.
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 69, and other crew members have been arrested on negligence charges. Lee was also charged with undertaking an "excessive change of course without slowing down".
Several crew members, including the captain, left the ferry as it was sinking, witnesses have said, after passengers were told to stay in their cabins. President Park Geun-hye said on Monday that instruction was tantamount to an "act of murder".
Many of the children did not question their elders, as is customary in hierarchical Korean society, and paid for their obedience with their lives.
Lee was not on the bridge when the ship turned. Navigation was in the hands of a 26-year old third mate who was in charge for the first time on that part of the journey, according to crew members.
In a confused exchange between the sinking Sewol and maritime traffic control released by the government, the crew said the ship was listing to port.
"Make passengers wear life jackets and get ready in case you need to abandon ship," traffic control said.
The Sewol answered: "It's difficult for the passengers to move now."
Hwang stressed the danger of the job if searching for corpses in such tight confines.
"It threatens health and safety," he said. "But we are trying really hard. The entire nation is worried."