JINDO , South Korea - Divers retrieved 16 bodies Sunday from inside the submerged South Korean ferry that capsized four days ago with hundreds of children on board, opening a grim new chapter in the search and recovery process.
The recovery of the first bodies from the interior of the ferry came after prosecutors revealed that the officer at the helm of the 6,825-tonne Sewol when it capsized Wednesday was not familiar with those particular waters.
The confirmed death toll from the disaster now stands at 49 with 253 people still unaccounted for.
Three bodies were pulled out of the fully submerged ferry just before midnight and another 13 were recovered later Sunday morning, a coastguard spokesman said.
The breakthrough followed days of fruitless efforts by more than 500 divers to access the interior of the capsized ship, while battling powerful currents and near-zero visibility.
Their recovery looks set to dash the slim hopes of distraught relatives who had clung desperately to the idea that some passengers may have survived in air pockets in the upturned vessel.
The bodies were placed in tents at the harbour on Jindo island - not far from the disaster site - where the relatives have been camped out in a gymnasium since the ferry went down.
In a process that looks set to be repeated with tragic frequency in the coming days, the bodies were checked for IDs and other particulars, after which their relatives were informed and asked to make an official identification.
Trauma of identification
Some of the policemen standing guard at the tents were openly weeping, while the cries of the relatives could be heard from inside.
Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 350 were high school students headed for the holiday island of Jeju.
Although officials have not ruled out the possibility of finding survivors, the emergency operation is clearly transitioning from one of rescue to recovery, and many relatives have provided DNA samples to facilitate identification.
Three giant floating cranes have been at the disaster site off the southern coast of South Korea for days, but the coastguard has promised it will not begin lifting the ferry until it clear there is nobody left alive.