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Captain Apologizes As Death Toll Rises In S. Korea Ferry Accident

This post was updated at 7:25 p.m.

Divers recovered more bodies early Sunday in South Korea, from the wreckage of a ferry that sank earlier this week. The number of confirmed dead has now risen to 46. Since the ship sank on Wednesday, difficult conditions have complicated recovery efforts; heavy cranes have arrived that can shift the ferry, but officials say they'll wait to use them until they're sure none of the hundreds still missing managed to survive.

"They've been dealing with next to zero visibility, very strong currents," NPR's Anthony Kuhn tells Wade Goodwyn on Weekend Edition Saturday. "Also, they've been trying to pump air into that ship, in the hopes that there are some survivors hanging on in air pockets."

The captain of the Sewol, a 6,852-ton ferry, has been criticized for allowing 30 minutes to pass before giving an evacuation order. And days after the disaster, Lee Jun-Seok, 69, was arrested along with two crew members. He is charged with negligence of duty and other offenses.

The ferry began to sink on its way to a resort island off South Korea's southern coast Wednesday with 476 people on board, including 325 high school students.

About 174 people reportedly survived. Desperate efforts to find anyone who might have survived in air pockets within the ship were plagued by poor visibility in the water and strong currents.

After the accident, crew members say the ship turned more sharply than usual. Experts believe the ferry was doomed when its cargo shifted, causing it to list at an angle from which it couldn't recover. South Korea's Yonhap news agency says that officials don't believe an external cause, such as a large rock or other object, played a role.

Here's how we've described the sinking:

After he was arrested, the captain apologized. As the BBC reports:

The captain added that at the time, rescue ships had not yet arrived on the scene.

Yonhap reports that an analysis of the list of known survivors finds that a large percentage of the crew escaped the sinking wreck, including all 15 who were tasked with steering the ferry. Less than a quarter of the high school students who were aboard the ferry have been found alive, the agency says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.