S. Korea ferry disaster: Search turns increasingly grim

Schoolchildren tie yellow ribbons symbolising hope for the safe return of missing passengers on the 'Sewol' ferry onto the roadside of a main gate at Danwon high school on April 24, 2014.

The mother of the 5-year-old girl rescued alone from the Sewol ferry was found Thursday, adding yet another heartbreaking story to the tragedy.

The story of the little girl's rescue has been tugging at the heartstrings of people across the world since the ship sank off the country's southeastern coast of April 16.

Kwon was on her way to her parent's tangerine farm on Jejudo Island with her 6-year-old brother. The two little Kwons were playing away from their parents when the vessel began to list. As the ship continued to list and sink, her brother gave her his life vest and went to look for their parents.

That was the last anyone saw or heard of her family, until today, when the body of her mother ― a 26-year-old identified as Han ― was recovered. Her brother and 52-year-old father are among the 131 people still unaccounted for.

Fortunately, Kwon was found by Park Ho-jin, one of the 75 Danwon High School students to reach safety, as he was about to jump for a lifeboat.

Park, who has since been lauded as one of Sewol's heroes, grabbed Kwon off the deck and only let go of her once he was safely on land.

Thursday also saw the recovery of a body believed to be the boy who was the first to raise the alarm. Although the authorities are still conducting a DNA test to confirm the identity, a couple believe that it is their son.

The boy, identified by the surname Choi, was on a school trip with 324 other students from Ansan's Danwon High School.

At 8:52 a.m. on April 16, 3 minutes before the Sewol first informed Jejudo authorities of its trouble, he called emergency services and told them that the ship may be sinking.

"We were on the way to Jejudo, the ship seems to be sinking. Should I put on a teacher?" Choi told emergency services.

His call prompted the Coast Guard, after some floundering, to dispatch rescue workers who saved 174 of the 476 people on board the ship.

As the fallout from one of the worst maritime accidents in Korea's recent history grows, the rescue workers are working against the clock to search for the missing passengers inside the sunken Sewol.

The neap tide cycle ― a period during which tidal differences are at minimum ― is to end Thursday, and the area's rapid currents are to return starting Friday.

With the window of opportunity rapidly closing, the rescue workers on Thursday concentrated their available resources on searching through the fourth deck, where a large number of Danwon High School students are likely to have been at the time of the accident. Although the government launched a massive search and rescue mission involving the armed forces, government and police agencies immediately after the accident, only bodies have been recovered with no signs of survivors.

As of 8:00 a.m., the death toll stood at 181, and the number of the missing at 121.