In South Korea, Ferry Rescue Efforts Yield Only Grisly Results

It's been a grim Easter Sunday in South Korea as the death toll continues to rise from the ferry disaster that left nearly 300 passengers, many of them high school students, dead or missing.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. It has been a grim Easter Sunday for relatives of passengers who were on the ferry that capsized off the coast of South Korea on Wednesday. The death toll from that disaster is now over 50, with about 240 people still missing, most of them high school students. Today, divers started retrieving bodies from inside the vessel.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn is covering the story in Seoul and joins us now. Anthony, it took divers about four days before they could get in the ship and recover bodies. How is the recovery effort going now?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, you remember that for the past few days they had been hampered by bad weather and rough seas and they were just not able to get in at all. They finally got into the ship and they've recovered some bodies inside it and they got some that were floating outside. That means that the body count is now likely to rise sharply. And after this many days the chance of finding survivors is pretty slim.

RATH: And aside from that, the big news of the day, I guess, is that South Korean officials released a recorded conversation that really detailed the moments before the ship went down. Did we learn anything from that?

KUHN: There were a few things in there. There was a half-hour of conversations recorded between the ferry crew and the maritime traffic controllers onshore. The controllers twice urged the crew of the ferry to get passengers into their life vests and prepare to abandon ship. The crew said, we cannot do that because the ship is tilted too far, also because the broadcast system is down.

Also reports came out saying that the ferry operator underreported the number of passengers, cars and cargo that were aboard the ferry, although we don't know for sure yet that that was related to the capsizing of the ship.

RATH: It seems like some of the passengers' family members are pretty unhappy with the government's response to the disaster. They tried to march on the president's palace. What happened with that?

KUHN: Well, these unhappy family members did not get far. They were going to go all the way to the Blue House, which is the presidential palace in Seoul and they didn't even make it out of the town where the harbor is. You know, it may seem odd that transportation-related disasters can actually put people in the streets protesting against government, but we've seen it. Interestingly, it happened with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

These Koreans protesting against their own government's performance tells us something about the relationship between the people and the government and what channels are open to them to protest.

RATH: Now, you visited the town where the high school , where most of the students that were on the ferry came from. How is that community holding up?

KUHN: Well, this is Ansan. It's a satellite city south of Seoul, and I went there today. The government has declared the area a disaster zone. This high school where the kids came from, almost an entire class was wiped out. Clearly, the impact of the disaster is widely felt in that area.

RATH: It's just dreadful. That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Anthony, thank you.

KUHN: You're welcome, Arun.

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