Divers on Saturday retrieved the first bodies from the submerged South Korean ferry that capsized nearly four days ago, marking a grim new stage in the search and recovery process.
“Divers broke through the window of a passenger cabin just before midnight and pulled out three bodies,” a coastguard official told AFP on Sunday.
All three were wearing lifejackets, the official said, adding that two were male while the gender of the third was not immediately confirmed.
They were the same three bodies that had been spotted, but not retrieved, during an earlier dive.
The confirmed death toll from the disaster now stands at 36 with 266 people still unaccounted for.
More than 350 of those on board the 6,825-tonne Sewol when it capsized and sank on Wednesday morning were students from the same high school in Ansan city just south of Seoul.
The age of the victims pulled from the ferry on Saturday night was not immediately known.
Their recovery followed days of fruitless efforts by more than 500 divers to access the submerged ship in the face of powerful currents and near-zero visibility.
Relatives of the missing gathered in the southern island of Jindo — not far from the disaster site — have been clinging to the slimmest of hopes that some may have survived in trapped air pockets.
On Saturday, investigators arrested the ferry’s captain, Lee Joon-Seok and two of his crew.
All three have been criticized for abandoning hundreds of passengers still trapped in the ferry, as they made their own escape.
Lee was charged with negligence and failing to secure the safety of passengers in violation of maritime law.
All three were paraded before TV cameras at their arraignment, dressed in dark raincoats with their hoods pulled up and their heads bowed.
Questioned as to why passengers had been ordered not to move for more than 40 minutes after the ship first foundered, Lee insisted it was a safety measure.
“At the time a rescue ship had not arrived. There were also no fishing boats or other ships around to help,” Lee said.
“The currents were very strong and the water was cold at that time in the area.
“I thought that passengers would be swept far away and fall into trouble if they evacuated thoughtlessly,” he added.
Experts have suggested many more people might have escaped if they had moved to reach evacuation points before the ship listed sharply and water started flooding in.
The relatives camped out in a gymnasium on Jindo island — most of them parents of high school students — have sharply criticized the pace of the rescue operation, accusing officials of incompetence and indifference.
Only 174 were rescued when the ferry sank and no new survivors have been found since Wednesday.
Nam Sung-Won, whose 17-year-old nephew was among the missing, said the clock was fast running down on the hope that some may have survived.
“We don’t have much time. Many people here believe this is the last possible day for finding trapped passengers alive.
“After today, hope will be gone,” Nam said.
For those relatives ready to accept the worst outcome, the coastguard had set up a tent near the gym to take DNA tests to facilitate eventual identification of recovered bodies.
“Up until yesterday, I was still hanging on to some hope,” said Han Mi-Ok, whose teenage son was listed as missing.
“But today I’m bracing myself for the worst,” she told AFP Saturday before entering the tent to provide a sample.
The unfolding tragedy was compounded by the apparent suicide Friday of the school’s vice principal, Kang Min-Kyu, who was seemingly overcome by guilt at having survived the sinking.
Initial questioning of the captain has focused on what actually caused the ferry to sink.
Tracking data from the Maritime Ministry showed the vessel made a sharp turn just before sending its first distress signal.
Some experts believe a tight turn could have dislodged the heavy cargo manifest — including more than 150 vehicles — and destabilized the vessel, causing it to list heavily and then capsize.
Captain Lee confirmed he was not at the helm when the ship ran into trouble.
The ship was being steered by a 55-year-old helmsman identified by his surname Jo, under the supervision of the female third officer.
“It may have partly been my fault,” Jo said at the arraignment. “But the steering gear rotated unusually fast.”