S Korea ferry disaster: Death toll rises, government mulls special disaster zone

S Korea ferry disaster: Death toll rises, government mulls special disaster zone

The ferry disaster's death toll continued to rise Sunday as the government mulled designating the concerned area a special disaster zone.

Since late Saturday, rescue workers recovered 16 more bodies from the sunken ferry Sewol off the coast of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province in South Korea, pushing the death toll to 49.

Of the 476 people who were onboard the vessel, 253 remain unaccounted for.

Since the ferry sank some 20 kilometres off the coast of Jindo Island on Wednesday, the government has been conducting a massive search and rescue mission involving the military, Coast Guard and civilian volunteers.

As the efforts continue, the Prime Minister's Office is said to be considering declaring Gyeonggi Province's Ansan and Jindo Island a special disaster zone.

Ansan is the location of Danwon High School whose students and staff made up the bulk of the Sewol's passengers. There were 325 students and 14 teachers aboard the ship.

Of them, 78 students and two teachers have been rescued.

The search and rescue operations continue to be hampered by difficult weather conditions.

The area where the ferry sank is expected to see winds of up to 12 metres per second and waves as high as 2 metres throughout the morning. The currents, however, are forecast to begin slowing from Sunday raising hopes that the search operations will be able to pick up pace.

The speed of the currents is expected drop to about half the 2.8 metres per second seen since Wednesday.

The investigation into the cause of the incident is also set to pick up pace Sunday with authorities planning to resume the questioning of crew members.

So far, the probe has revealed that the ship's captain Lee Joon-seok was absent as the third mate -- a 25-year old identified as Park who has less than one year experience -- tried to navigate the area's notoriously fast currents for the first time.

As for the cause of the accident, the authorities suspect that the Sewol sharply changed direction, causing the vessel to lose balance. The investigators are now concentrating on determining what prompted Park to do so.

Lee, Park and the helmsman who was on duty at the time of the accident are currently under arrest.

The families of the missing continued to express anguish at the government's response to the disaster.

Relatives of the missing have accused the government of haphazard rescue operations, and some 140 individuals faced off with police as they called for a meeting with President Park Geun-hye.

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