JINDO, South Korea — Divers grope their way slowly through the dark corridors and cabins of the sunken Sewol ferry. Bodies appear suddenly, floating by in the murky water, buoyed by life-jackets or the bloat of decomposition, their faces etched with fear or shock.
Some are still locked together in embraces, a freeze-frame of panic as the water rushed in and the ship sank. The hair of female corpses ripples in the current, framing pale faces.
At times, heavy sediment in the water can make flashlights useless and it is almost total darkness inside the South Korean ferry, which has flipped upside down on the sea floor. Divers must stretch their hands into the void to search for bodies. There's constant worry their lifeline to the surface, a 100-meter oxygen hose, will get snagged or cut as they swim deeper through the wreck's maze-like hallways.
For nearly a week now, dozens of divers have battled fast currents and cold waters — as well as exhaustion and fear — to pull out a steady stream of corpses. As they go deeper into what has become a huge underwater tomb, they're getting a glimpse of the ship's final moments April 16 before it capsized. More than 300 — most of them high school students — are feared dead.
"They can see the people's expressions at the instant" the ship sank, Hwang Dae Sik said of the team of 30 divers he supervises for the Marine Rescue and Salvage Association, a private group of professional divers who've joined Korean navy and coast guard divers in the search and rescue effort. "From the bodies' expressions, you can see they were facing danger and death."
Divers descend about 100 feet down and enter the ship through windows they've broken with hammers.
Han Yong Duk, a 33-year-old diver, said that visibility was often so poor that divers had to feel their way along the outside of the ship to find windows they could smash.
Once inside the ship, divers have to dodge floating debris — passengers' belongings, cargo, ropes, chairs — but also bodies.
It's also emotionally exhausting, and divers often find themselves thinking of the lives lost.
Hwang said his divers try to avoid looking at the eyes of the bodies they retrieve to minimize the shock. It's not always possible. "Even though they have a lot of diving experience, they get really frightened when they first face the bodies," he said.
Many of the students are found hugging each other.
"How hard it must have been for the kids, with the cold water rushing in and darkness coming over them," Hwang said. "Yesterday, I had a lump in my throat talking about this. I thought to myself: Why did I tell them that I can help with rescues and have a lot of experience when I can't even save one life here?"
Visiting President Barack Obama offered South Koreans his condolences Friday.
He arrived at the Blue House, South Korea's presidential residence, and presented President Park Geun Hye with an American flag that flew over the White House the day the ship sank. His first South Korean visit since Park took office last year was aimed at issues including North Korea, but he noted that his trip comes at a time of "great sorrow."
"So many were young students with their entire lives ahead of them," Obama said, invoking his two daughters, both close in age to many of the ferry victims. "I can only imagine what the parents are going through at this point, the incredible heartache."
Accepting the flag, Park drew a parallel between the way Americans pulled together after the 9/11 attacks and the resilience of South Koreans following one of the worst maritime disasters in their country's history.
"The Korean people draw great strength from your kindness," she said.
Divers have recovered 183 bodies so far, but 119 remain missing and are feared dead in the dark rooms of the submerged vessel.
Search officials including a navy spokesman and a diver said 35 of the ferry's 111 rooms have been searched so far, Yonhap news agency reported. They said 48 of the bodies recovered were found were in a single large room built to accommodate 38.
The South Korean government conceded Friday that some bodies have been misidentified.
There have been several reports in South Korean media this week of bodies going to the wrong families, with the error sometimes caught only after the remains were taken to a funeral home. An "action plan" released by the government-wide emergency task force acknowledged that "there have been cases where the victims were wrongly transferred."