South Korean sunken ferry death toll tops 100

Family members of missing passengers from sunken South Korean ferry Sewol cry as they look out to sea at port in Jindo, where relatives of missing passengers gathered, April 22, 2014 REUTERS

Last Updated Apr 22, 2014 3:50 AM EDT

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korean officials say their earlier conclusion that the ferry that sank last week, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing, had made a sharp turn shortly before the disaster was incorrect, and that the vessel made a less severe turn than initially reported.

Data transmitted by the Sewol's automatic identification system, an on-board transponder used for tracking, shows that the ship made a J-shaped turn before listing heavily and ultimately sinking.

A ministry of ocean and fisheries official had said Friday that the vessel had taken a sharp turn. But on Tuesday, a ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity saying he wasn't authorized to speak to media, said the AIS data received by a central station was incomplete because the ship's signal was weak.

More complete data, retrieved from a base station in Mokpo, includes about four minutes of tracking, and the ship spent most of that time making a roughly 180-degree turn.

It remains unclear why the ship turned around shortly before it sank. The third mate, who has been arrested, was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time.

Authorities have not identified the third mate, though a colleague identified her as Park Han-gyeol. Senior prosecutor Ahn Song-don said Monday the third mate has told investigators why she made the turn, but he would not reveal her answer, and more investigation is needed to determine whether the answer is accurate.

This, as the grim task of recovering bodies from the vessel continued, and the official death toll surpassed 100, hitting 108, with nearly 200 people still missing.

About 250 of the missing or dead are students from a single high school, in Ansan, near Seoul, who were on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju.

Funerals were held in Ansan for more than 10 of the teens Tuesday, and education officials were building a temporary memorial that they expected to complete by Wednesday.

At the city education office, parents issued a letter pleading for more government help in the rescue, and condemning its response so far. The letter also criticized media for reporting false rumors, and for doggedly pursuing interviews with surviving children.

"The children say that when they look at the window, sudden fear of water seizes them. What the children need is utmost stability," said Jang Dong-won, father of a rescued female student.

Many families of victims, and South Koreans more broadly, have at times responded with fury.

The captain initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and waited more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order as the Sewol sank. By then, the ship had tilted so much it is believed that many passengers were trapped inside.

At a Cabinet briefing Monday, President Park Geun-hye said, "What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. Unforgivable, murderous behavior." The comments were posted online by the presidential Blue House.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Prosecutors detained six other crew members - four on Monday and two on Tuesday - but have yet to obtain arrest warrants for them.

The Reuters news agency reports that one of those detained and charged with negligence said the crew tried to launch lifeboats, but couldn't get close enough to them because of the tilt of the ship.

A transcript of ship-to-shore communications released Sunday revealed a ship that was crippled with indecision. A crew member asked repeatedly whether passengers would be rescued after abandoning ship even as the ferry tilted so sharply that it became impossible to escape.

Lee, 68, has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived. But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck - where they would have had a greater chance of survival - without telling them to abandon ship.

Comments