SEOUL: Some parents of the mostly teenage victims of South Korea's ferry disaster are pushing for autopsies that might show their children were alive inside the submerged vessel and only died because the emergency response was so slow.
The confirmed death toll on Thursday stood at 169, but 133 were still missing as dive teams searched in near pitch-black conditions for bodies trapped in the ferry's interior.
More than a week after the 6,825 tonne Sewol capsized and sank with 476 people on board, most of them high school students, there is still widespread anger among the victims' families over the pace of the initial rescue effort.
It took divers working in difficult, dangerous conditions more than two days to access the sunken ferry and two more days to retrieve the first bodies.
Many relatives believe some of the victims may have survived for several days in trapped air pockets, but perished in the cold water after no rescue came.
As a result, some have asked for autopsies to be performed, to see if it would be possible to determine the precise cause and time of death.
"We have received a number of enquiries about autopsies," said a member of the forensic team on Jindo island working on identifying the bodies recovered from the disaster site.
"It seems they want some confirmation of the exact cause of death, but it's only a minority that is asking," he said.
An official responsible for legal and medical issues at the emergency situation desk on Jindo said there was nothing to prevent families having an autopsy carried out.
"But to my knowledge, nobody has so far actually brought a body to the National Forensic Service to have this done," the official said.
The belief that some passengers might have survived the initial capsize was very strong in the days immediately after the Sewol sank, fuelled in part by fake postings on social network sites that claimed to be text messages from trapped passengers begging to be rescued.
Relatives have also been distressed by reports that many of the recovered bodies had broken fingers - pointing to frantic efforts to escape the vessel as it listed and sank.
Of the 476 people on board, 325 were students from Danwon High School in Ansan city, just south of Seoul.
Kim Hyong-Ki, the spokesman for a representative committee set up by the relatives, confirmed that some parents were pushing for autopsies.
"They want to know for certain how their family members died," kim said.
"That said, most people oppose it because they can't bear the idea of the bodies being damaged any more.
"My daughter's body is still out there in the sea, but I don't want anyone dissecting it after it is recovered."
Hundreds of yellow ribbons were tied Thursday to the guard rail on the quayside of Jindo harbour, some with simple handwritten messages like "I miss you" and "Farewell."
A coastguard official said divers were concentrating on accessing cabins on the third and fourth decks in their grim search for more bodies.
Body of first caller found
According to the Yonhap news agency, one of the bodies recovered was of a high school student who made the first distress call from the ferry.
The student, identified by his surname Choi, had called the emergency 119 number at 8:52am, three minutes before the crew sent their first distress signal.
The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-Seok, and six crew members are under arrest with four other crew taken into police custody.
Lee has been charged on several counts including criminal negligence and abandoning his passengers.
The captain has been particularly criticised for delaying the evacuation order until the ferry was listing so sharply that escape was almost impossible.
Prosecutors have raided a host of businesses affiliated with the ferry operator, the Chonghaejin Marine Company, as part of an overall probe into corrupt management.
More than 70 executives and other people connected with Chonghaejin and its affiliates have been issued 30-day travel bans while they are investigated on possible charges ranging from criminal negligence to embezzlement.
In Ansan, hundreds of people filed into a temporary memorial to the Danwon High students and teachers who died.
On Wednesday more than 12,000 people visited the memorial set up in an indoor stadium which comprised a giant, terraced altar of flowers - among which rested the framed pictures and names of students whose funerals have already taken place.-AFP