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JINDO, South Korea – As the bodies of children with broken fingers were recovered from the submerged South Korean ferry, divers initially involved in the rescue questioned on Wednesday whether the government was doing enough to hunt for missing passengers.
Divers were still painstakingly searching the wreck of the Sewol ferry for 145 missing people, a week after it sank with 476 passengers and crew on board – 339 of them children and teachers on a high school trip. The confirmed death toll had reached 157, authorities said.
But a group of frustrated volunteer divers idled on dry land, saying they’d been banned from the search after some victims’ family members asked the government to only use military divers and civilian professionals.
“We respect the wishes of the families,” said Hwang Dae Young, president of the Korea Underwater Environment Association and leader of the group of volunteers. “But the government is still not doing enough and we’re here to help.”
Some volunteer divers were allowed into the water around the ferry during the first days of rescue operations but they haven’t been allowed back in days, he said.
They have spent recent nights camped out under a tent in the local harbor, a thin layer of Styrofoam separating them from the stony ground.
Unable to feel their way through the wreck's underwater maze themselves, the divers have learned of the latest developments in the search third-hand -- reading in local media that the children's broken fingers were a grim indication that they tried to claw themselves up walls or floors in a frantic bid to escape.
“We’re tired of waiting,” Hwang said. Many of the 50 volunteer divers have already left.
“I’ve done over 7,000 dives ... Of course I can do the same job as a military diver.”
Jung Jong Nam said that if he didn’t receive orders soon, he would also leave –- without having been able to help.
Jung, 49, made his way from the island of Jeju, where the ferry was headed. He said he has a child around the age of many of those who died.
“I told myself, I just have to go and help them out,” he said, describing how close he had come. Maritime police took him out to the location of the sunken ferry on Tuesday, but didn’t let him dive.
“After long hours of waiting, the coast guard told us to leave,” he said.
Jung said he has been diving since he was 23 and has owned a diving shop.“I’ve done over 7,000 dives,” he said. “Of course I can do the same job as a military diver.”
Officials would not comment on the issue of volunteer divers but a spokesperson for the government task force leading the search said the operation involved coordinating divers from various groups including civilian deep sea specialists, navy forces, fire departments and maritime police.
The divers can work for nearly an hour at a time as long as the oxygen lines do not snag on sharp corners of the ship's internal structure.
When they use cumbersome oxygen tanks on their backs instead, they can work for about 20 minutes before an alarm bell sounds.Of the 476 passengers and crew on board the Sewol, only 174 people were rescued. The rest are presumed to have drowned.
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 69, and other crew members have been arrested on negligence charges. Lee was also charged with undertaking an "excessive change of course without slowing down."
Reuters contributed to this report.