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Official death toll tops 100 in South Korea ferry disaster

The confirmed number of fatalities in South Korea's ferry disaster has topped 100, with nearly 200 people still missing. Dive teams have ramped up their search efforts after finding a way into the ship over the weekend.

Despite improved weather conditions, underwater visibility was still poor on Tuesday as divers made their way through the ferry that sank last week in one of South Korea's worst peacetime disasters. Divers were forced to move blindly through corridors and cabins of the 6,825-ton Sewol as they tried to locate the nearly 200 people, who are mostly school children, still unaccounted for.

"The weather is better, but it's still very difficult for the divers who are essentially fumbling for bodies in the silted water," a coastguard official told reporters.

Officials said Tuesday morning that the confirmed number of dead had reached 104. The death toll in the sinking has shot up since divers were able to find a way into the ship over the weekend.

The ferry capsized and sank last Wednesday while traveling south from the port of Incheon to the tourist island of Jeju. Only 174 of the ships 476 passengers and crew were rescued. The rest are all presumed to have drowned. Some 339 people aboard were children and teachers on a high school trip. The cause of the disaster is still not known.

Grieving families of the victims were gathered at Tuesday the harbor of Jindo island, near the site of the sinking. Police officers cordoned off the dock where the most-recently recovered bodies were arriving.

Some bodies have been identified visually, but family members have also been providing DNA samples in case decomposition makes that impossible.

Captain, crew condemned

President Park Guen-hye on Monday criticized the ship's captain and crew for initially telling passengers to remain in their rooms. They waited there for more than a half hour before an evacuation order was issued. By that time, the vessel had tilted so much it is believed many passengers were trapped inside.

"What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. Unforgivable, murderous behavior," she said at a Cabinet briefing, according to comments posted online by the presidential Blue House.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Prosecutors said Monday that four other crew members have been detained, and formal arrest warrants for them have been requested.

Lee, 68, said he waited to issue an evacuation order because he was concerned people would be swept away by the cold water's strong current.

Focus on dining hall

Divers on Tuesday were focused on accessing the vessel's main dining hall.

"We believe there are many bodies there as the accident took place in the morning when students must have been eating breakfast," the coast guard official said.

Giant floating cranes arrived at the disaster site several days ago, but many victims' relatives do not want the ship to be raised until all the bodies have been removed. The US also said it was sending the salvage ship USNS Safeguard if further help was required.

dr/hc (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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