The confirmed death toll in South Korea's ferry disaster rose rapidly on Wednesday to 159, but more than 140 people remained unaccounted for nearly a week into the rescue and recovery effort.
The ferry, named the Sewol, was carrying 476 people — most of them high school students — when it capsized and sank last Wednesday.
Some 187 people, including the captain and most of his crew, were rescued. The expected final death toll of around 300 would make this one of South Korea's worst peacetime disasters.
A Seoul department store collapsed in 1995, killing more than 500 people, while nearly 300 people died when a ferry capsized off the west coast in 1993.
The number of corpses recovered has risen sharply since the weekend, when divers battling strong currents and low visibility were finally able to enter the submerged vessel. But task force spokesman Koh Myung-seok the work is becoming more difficult, and divers must now break through cabin walls to retrieve more bodies.
"The lounge is one big open space, so once in it we got our search done straight away. But in the case of the cabins, we will have to break down the walls in between because they are all compartments," Koh said.
Once the bodies are ashore, they are being identified visually, but family members have been providing DNA samples in case it is needed for the identification of decomposed bodies.
The funeral halls in Ansan are already full, Oh Sang-yoon of the government-wide emergency task force center said in a statement. He said the center "is taking measures to accommodate additional bodies by placing mortuary refrigerators at the funeral halls in Ansan," and directing mourning families to funeral homes in nearby cities.
The families, and South Koreans more broadly, have at times responded to the disaster with fury. The captain initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and waited more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order as the Sewol sank. By then, the ship had tilted so much it is believed that many passengers were trapped inside.
At a Cabinet briefing Monday, President Park Geun-hye said, "What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. Unforgivable, murderous behavior."
Most of the bodies found have been recovered since the weekend, when divers, frustrated for days by strong currents, bad weather and poor visibility, were finally able to enter the ferry. But conditions remain challenging.
Searchers on Monday deployed a remote-controlled underwater camera dubbed the ROV1 to explore the inside of the ferry. Unlike divers who have to surface after 20 minutes, the U.S.-built camera can be used for two to three hours at a time.
Twenty-two of the 29 members of the ferry's crew survived, and nine have been arrested or detained in connection with the investigation.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members were arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Four other crew members were detained on Monday and arrested Tuesday, prosecutors said. Another two crew members were detained Tuesday.
The four crew members arrested Tuesday talked to reporters after a court hearing, their faces hidden with caps, hooded sweatshirts and masks.
One said they tried to correct the ferry's listing early on but "various devices, such as the balance weight, didn't work. So we reported the distress situation, according to the captain's judgment, and tried to launch the lifeboats, but the ferry was too tilted and we couldn't reach."
The captain has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived. But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck — where they would have had a greater chance of survival — without telling them to abandon ship.