A boy and girl trapped in a sinking South Korean ferry tied their life jacket cords together, a diver who recovered their bodies said Thursday – the latest heartbreaking twist in the grim task of recovery at the scene.
The diver said he had to separate the pair because he could not carry two corpses to the surface at the same time.
"I started to cry thinking that they didn't want to leave each other," he told the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper on the island of Jindo, near where the overloaded Sewol went down on April 16.
It was one of many sad stories to emerge as the confirmed death toll from the disaster reached 171 on Thursday, leaving 131 still missing, presumed drowned.
As the ferry began sinking, the captain ordered passengers not to move – a decision that now appears to have cost hundreds of lives.
The victims were mostly high school students and their teachers setting out on a field trip from the city of Ansan to the island of Jeju.
Funeral homes in Ansan are already full, an official said. Mortuary refrigerators were being used to accommodate more bodies while some mourning families were being directed to funeral homes in other cities.
Classes at the school resumed Thursday with banks of floral tributes surrounding photos of each of the victims, dressed in their school uniforms.
In the classrooms of the missing, friends posted messages on desks, blackboards and windows, in the days after disaster struck, asking for the safe return of their friends. "If I see you again, I'll tell you I love you, because I haven't said it to you enough," read one.
Among the confirmed dead is now the boy whose shaking voice first raised the alarm that the Sewol was in distress.
“Save us! We're on a ship and I think it's sinking," the boy told emergency services in a cellphone call from the vessel as it began to list.
The parents of the boy, whose family name is Choi, have seen a body with his clothes and have concluded it is their son but he has not been formally identified with a DNA test – a move that is proving necessary as trapped bodies begin to decay.
As divers plunge deeper into the ferry, the work gets harder as they find they have to rip through cabin walls to retrieve more victims.
Navy divers were searching the rear of the ferry's fourth floor, officials posted on a sign board in Jindo. The coast guard and a rescue company were searching the middle section of the same floor, and another team was to search the front and middle of the fourth floor.
Looming in the background is a sensitive issue: When to bring in the cranes and begin the salvage effort by cutting up and raising the submerged vessel.
"Now we think we have to deal with this realistically," said Pyun Yong-gi, whose 17-year-old daughter is among the missing. "We don't want the bodies to decay further, so we want them to pull out the bodies as quickly as they can. I've seen the bodies and they are starting to smell. It inflicts a new wound for the parents to see the bodies decomposed.”
That view is not shared among all relatives of the missing, however. One of them, Jang Jong-ryul, was sensitive about the mere mention of the word "salvage" and said most families don't want to think about it.
For some relatives of the missing, speed in recovering the dead is becoming more important.
Investigations are now focused on the actions of the captain and crew during the disaster, and whether the ship – which was overloaded with cargo – suffered a mechanical failure that caused it to turn too sharply at high speed.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.