JINDO, South Korea (Reuters) - South Korean divers retrieved three bodies from inside a sunken ferry overnight, officials said on Sunday, the first time they have been able to gain entry to the passenger section of the ship.
What was a search-and-rescue mission has now turned into an attempt to retrieve more than 200 bodies - many of them children - from the wreck of the ferry that capsized on Wednesday on a routine trip in calm waters.
“At 11:48 p.m. (10.48 ET) the joint rescue team broke a glass window and succeeded in getting inside the vessel,” the South Korean government said in a statement.
The discovery of the bodies brought to 36 the official death toll from what looks to be South Korea’s deadliest maritime accident in 21 years. There are still 266 unaccounted for among the 476 people now believed to have been on the ferry.
Hundreds of despairing relatives gathered in a gymnasium in the port city of Jindo in southwestern Korea have spent four days and nights awaiting news of their relatives on the ship.
Many of those unaccounted for on the ship are children from a high school in the city of Ansan, a commuter town on the edge of the South Korean capital, Seoul.
Out of the people on the vessel, 339 were either pupils or teachers.
The vice principal of the school who was on the ferry and survived the capsize hanged himself and was discovered on Friday outside the gymnasium in Jindo.
Early reports suggest that the ferry, on a 400-km (300-mile) voyage from the mainland port of Incheon to the Korean resort island of Jeju, may have turned sharply and then listed before capsizing.
Investigations are looking at how the cargo was stowed, the safety record of the ship operator and the actions of the crew.
Three crew members, including the 69-year-old captain, were arrested on Saturday and charged with crimes relating to negligence.
Witnesses say the captain, Lee Joon-seok, and other crew members left the sinking ship before many of the passengers and that orders to evacuate were either not given, or not heard.
Lee said he feared that passengers would be swept away by the ferocious currents in the area if they leapt into the sea, but has not explained why he left the vessel.
Reporting by Jumin Park; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Peter Cooney