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Ferry Victims' Families Surround Officials, Demand Answers

Hurling insults and swears at South Korea’s Minister of Oceans and Fisheries and the Coast Guard chief, relatives of the ferry victims demanded answers.

JINDO, South Korea — Angry relatives of about 130 people still missing from the sinking of the South Korean ferry surrounded officials Thursday and prevented them from leaving a tent where families have been waiting for news of their loved ones.

Hurling insults and cursing at South Korea’s Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Lee Ju-young, coast guard chief Kim Seok-kyun and deputy chief Choi Sang-hwan, relatives of the victims accused the government officials of not doing enough to find their loved ones.

“You are supposed to save the people of this country,” one parent of a missing student shouted, as government officials sat defensively on the floor of the tent.

Behind them, notice boards with the information on the recovered bodies offered a stark reminder of the human toll of the ferry disaster. Each recovered body is listed by a number in black ink on a white board; no names are listed.

Coastguard police chief Kim Seouk-kyun (bottom C), deputy coastguard police chief Choi Sang-hwan (bottom R), and South Korean minister of Oceans and Fisheries Lee Ju-young (bottom L) attend a meeting with relatives of victims of the Sewol ferry at Jindo harbor on April 24, 2014.ED JONES / AFP - Getty Images

The confirmed death toll from the disaster reached 171 on Thursday, leaving 131 still missing, presumed drowned.

The situation grew tense as the crowd of family members stood tightly around the officials and prevented them from leaving.

“Why don’t you tell us what you will do?” asked one relative as the angry mob tried to convince officials to speed up the recovery. There is a fear that the weather could worsen over the weekend and disrupt the work of the approximately 700 divers who have been working around the clock in shifts to recover the bodies trapped inside the sunken ferry.

Meanwhile, the ferry’s crew is being questioned by authorities about their behavior.

Park Han-gyeol, 26, was the third mate of the ferry at the time of the accident. She is also a former student of Professor Kim Woo-Sook of Mokpo National Maritime University who told NBC News he spoke to her at a detention center in Mokpo where she is being questioned by authorities.

Based on his conversations with his former student, Kim suspects that the steering system of the ferry was faulty.

According to Kim, Park said she told the helmsman to turn the ship by five degrees, but it turned too far and the helmsman was unable to turn it back. “She asked for an ordinary thing,” he said.

Government investigators have not confirmed any issues with the ferry’s steering gear. But Kim believes the real issue that sank the ship was the cargo.

“If cargo would not have been overweight, and had it been secured properly, the ferry would not have overturned,” he said.