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No air pockets found on key floors of sunken South Korean ferry

No air pockets found on key floors of sunken South Korean ferry
Scott Clotworthy/CNN
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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 6:32am

Divers have found no air pockets on the third and fourth floors of the sunken ferry Sewol, South Korean authorities said Wednesday.

The news all but eliminates any hopes of finding survivors on the ferry, which capsized and went down off the country's southwestern coast last week with hundreds of people on board.

Searchers had been focusing on the third and fourth levels of the five-floor vessel, as they believed many of those still missing were likely to be there. Most passenger bedrooms are on the fourth level of the now upended ship.

Earlier this week, divers and search officials had expressed hope they might still find air pockets that would have allowed people to survive in the submerged ship. They have insisted that their efforts remain a search and rescue operation.

Authorities had said they thought a lot of passengers might have been gathered in the cafeteria on the third floor of the ferry. But early Wednesday, the coast guard said no bodies were found there.

Divers have nonetheless continued to bring bodies up from the murky waters, many of them found in rooms on the fourth floor, said Ko Myung-suk, a spokesman for the Joint Task Force coordinating the search.

He said there were still a lot of rooms left to search.

Students remembered

More than two-thirds of those on board the ferry were students from Danwon High School in Ansan, a city an hour's drive south from Seoul.

They were being taken on a field trip by some of their teachers to a popular vacation island.

On Wednesday, some of the students' young faces stared out from photos amid a huge bank of white flowers in a gymnasium in Ansan. Plaques underneath each picture gave their names.

The dozens of photos are part of a temporary memorial to the dead and missing students that opened at a basketball arena in the city.

Hundreds of people filed through the gymnasium housing the memorial over the course of Wednesday morning and lunchtime, passing about 50 large wreaths on their way to the wall of flowers and pictures.

Somber music played as visitors, including friends and relatives, passed quietly among the tributes. Some people wept as pictures of the students scrolled across giant plasma screens.

Still holding out hope

Authorities say that the death toll from the sunken ferry, the Sewol, has now reached 156 as divers continue to retrieve bodies from inside the vessel. That leaves 148 still missing.

No survivors have been found since 174 people were rescued on the day the ship went down.

Other students from the school were among those paying their respects to their dead and missing classmates on Wednesday.

Lee Seung-min, 17, said one of her closest girlfriends is among the missing. Despite the increasingly slim chances of finding survivors, she said she still holds out hope that her friend will return.

Before the field trip, the two girls had talked about what universities they might attend, she said.

Public anger

The disaster has taken a devastating toll on the high school. It's missing most of its sophomores, and classes are due to resume Thursday. A vice principal who was rescued from the ferry was found dead two days after the sinking; he'd apparently hanged himself from a tree.

Other visitors to the memorial had no direct connection to the school or the students but said they were moved by the tragedy.

One visibly emotional man said he had felt compelled to drive down from Seoul to pay his respects. A father of two, he said the ferry disaster had left him feeling angry and hopeless.

The memorial is a temporary one, set up at the instigation of students' parents in the gymnasium, which is only a few hundred meters from the high school. A permanent site is planned in a park in Ansan.

Crew members arrested

Investigators, meanwhile, are trying to establish what happened to make the ship list before finally capsizing and sinking into the ocean.

Questions remain over the conduct of the ship's captain and some of the crew members as the crisis unfolded. They have been criticized for not getting more people off the ferry sooner, although the captain has said he was worried about the cold water, strong currents and lack of rescue vessels.

They have also drawn public anger for leaving the ship while many passengers remained stuck on board.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and ten crew members have been arrested. Some of them are facing criminal charges.

Prosecutors also said Wednesday that the offices of the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine, and the company owner's residence were searched.

Adding to the perception of chaos on board the sinking vessel, it emerged Tuesday that the first distress call from the ferry came not from the crew, but from a student who used a cell phone to contact emergency services from aboard the sinking ship.

CNN's Steven Jiang reported from Jindo; Andrew Stevens reported from Ansan; and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN's K.J. Kwon, Kyung Lah, Tim Schwarz, Larry Register, Judy Kwon and Michael Pearson contributed to this report. 

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