South Korean Ferry Death Toll Reaches 150, And Hope of Finding The 152 Still Missing Is Slipping Away

One week after the South Korean ferry "Sewol" sank off the southern coast of the peninsula, rescue workers are continuing their frantic search of the area in the hope of recovering the missing. So far 150 of the vessel's 476 passengers have been confirmed dead and 152 are still missing. On Wednesday rescue divers discovered that there were no air pockets in the third and fourth floors of the sunken ferry, virtually eliminating any hope of finding any more survivors.

Sewol was traveling between the port of Incheon in the northwest of South Korea and Jeju, a southern resort island when it eventually capsized. The majority of the passengers on board were high school students; three-quarters of the 323 students are still missing or have been confirmed dead.

Rescue divers described the gruesome task of recovering bodies from the ship. Swimming through cold and murky water with very poor visibility, they're feeling with their hands for bodies. Most of the dead found in the last two days have broken fingers, indicating that they probably tried to scramble up the walls or floors to escape the rising water.

The scale of the disaster has even prompted North Korea — whose communication with South Korea is usually in the form of aggressive threats — to reach out with a message of sympathy for its neighbor. The message was communicated between the two Koreas' Red Cross organizations.

"The North said in the message that it conveys deep condolences that so many passengers, including young students, died or went missing due to the sinking of the ferry Sewol," South Korea's Unification Ministry said, according to The Straits Times.

A temporary memorial to the dead and missing Danwon High School students has been erected in an indoor sports arena nearby in Ansan city. Framed pictures of the 22 students whose funerals have already taken place are nestled in a vast wall of white, yellow and green chrysanthemums, with the message "We pray for the souls of the departed" emblazoned on a banner above it.

Hundreds of fellow students, parents and relatives have visited the memorial, along with government officials, political leaders and celebrities.

Meanwhile the investigation into what happened on board the ferry and who is responsible has stepped up. On Saturday the Sewol's captain, Lee Joon Seok, the third mate and another crew member were arrested, and Lee was charged with negligence, abandoning his boat, not calling for rescue from other boats, and causing bodily injury. Two days later another four members of the crew were also arrested.

On Wednesday, offices of the ferry's operating company, Chonghaejin Marine Co., and its affiliates were raided, and its officials were banned from leaving the country. The residence of the firm's owner and other companies that he owns were also raided.

Prosecutors also retrieved documents from the Korean Register of Shipping, which carried out safety checks on Sewol earlier in the year. One of the focuses for investigators is whether the ferry was seaworthy and whether it was too heavily laden with cargo. Korean Register of Shipping data released Tuesday by an opposition party lawmaker indicated that Sewol was carrying 3,608 tons of cargo, which is more than three times the ferry's recommended maximum.