The death toll of the sunken South Korean ferry climbs to 121


South Korean coast guards and rescue workers are seen at the accident site of the capsized South Korean ferry Sewol in Jindo on April 22, 2014.



The confirmed death toll from South Korea's worst ferry accident in more than 20 years surpassed 120 on Tuesday, with 181 people still missing despite accelerated search operations.

The death toll from the sinking of the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol rose to 121 as of Tuesday night as divers retrieved a total of 30 bodies from the five-story vessel earlier in the day.

"Underwater operations will focus on the third and fourth floors, while vessels will search waters to prevent bodies from drifting away," the government disaster management team said in a briefing.

Divers have established five underwater routes guiding divers to the wreck, and plan to add more to speed up the operation, officials said. The team also dispatched two remotely operated vehicles into the sea for the second day to assist with the search operation.

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Tuesday's search was focused on gaining access to the ferry's main dining hall where several bodies are believed to be trapped inside, considering that the accident took place around breakfast time.

The operations have transitioned from rescue to recovery and identification as hopes have all but vanished that any passengers will be found alive. No survivors have been found since the ship sank off the southwestern island of Jindo on Wednesday. Of the 476 people on board, only 174 passengers, including the ferry's captain and most of its crew, were rescued after the boat capsized due to what is believed to have been a faster than usual turn.

While the search had been hampered by bad weather, murky water and strong currents, operations are expected to gather steam this week as the weather in the area finally turned favorable.

The government task force handling the disaster said search workers will continue to work around-the-clock as weather conditions have improved. It said it is mobilizing a total of 212 boats, 34 aircraft and 550 search workers.

Ahead of US President Barack Obama's visit to South Korea later this week, the Pentagon on Monday said it is sending a salvage ship, USS Safeguard, toward the peninsula from Thailand in case it is needed.

Rescue crews have positioned large cranes near the scene, but authorities said they will lift the capsized ship from the sea only with consent from families of the missing, some of whom may have a slight hope that there are still survivors.

Family representatives of missing passengers and five government agencies agreed to establish temporary mortuaries at Paengmok Port on Jindo Island for funeral services.

Coast Guard officials have conducted DNA testing to identify the retrieved bodies, comparing samples from victims and their relatives. Such testing has been conducted in a more stringent manner after one of the corpses was sent to the wrong place last week.

But the move sparked angry responses from some families because they considered providing DNA samples as an acknowledgment that their loved ones are dead. Scuffles broke out in hospitals when authorities asked relatives to prove their family relation before handing over bodies.

In response to the backlash, the government task force team said it will simplify the identification process to return the bodies to their families as soon as possible.