Divers grope their way slowly through the dark corridors and cabins of the sunken Sewol ferry. Bodies appear suddenly, floating by in the murky water, buoyed by life-jackets or the bloat of decomposition, their faces etched with fear or shock.
Some are still locked together in embraces, a freeze-frame of panic as the water rushed in and the ship sank. The hair of female corpses ripples in the current, framing pale faces.
At times, heavy sediment in the water can make flashlights useless and it is almost total darkness inside the South Korean ferry, which has flipped upside down on the seafloor. Divers must stretch their hands into the void to search for bodies. There’s constant worry their lifeline to the surface, a 100-meter oxygen hose, will get snagged or cut as they swim deeper through the wreck’s maze-like hallways.
For nearly a week now, dozens of divers have battled fast currents and cold waters – as well as exhaustion and fear – to pull out a steady stream of corpses. As they go deeper into what’s become a huge underwater tomb, they’re getting a glimpse of the ship’s final moments April 16 before it capsized. More than 300 – most of them high school students – are feared dead.
“They can see the people’s expressions at the instant” the ship sank, Hwang Dae-sik said of the team of 30 divers he supervises for the Marine Rescue and Salvage Association, a private group of professional divers who’ve joined Korean navy and coast guard divers in the search and rescue effort. “From the bodies’ expressions, you can see they were facing danger and death.”
Divers descend about 30 meters (100 feet) down and enter the ship through windows they’ve broken with hammers.