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'Save us': Boy's desperate call from doomed S. Korean ferry reveals horror

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A relative of a passenger aboard the sunken ferry Sewol cries while waiting for her missing loved one at a port in Jindo, South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)The Associated Press

A boy's desperate call from aboard a doomed South Korean ferry captured the horror on the ship as it sank in the Yellow Sea last Wednesday, killing at least 104 and leaving hundreds more missing.

"Save us! We're on a ship and I think it's sinking," Yonhap news agency quoted the boy, who is among the hundreds missing, as saying. His phone call to emergency dispatchers, believed to be the first made from the ship, was initially routed to fire officials before being patched through to the coast guard some two minutes later.

Word of the plaintive call came as investigators said their earlier conclusion that the sunken ferry had made a sharp turn shortly before the disaster was incorrect, and that the vessel changed course much more gradually.

The fire service official asked him to switch the phone to the captain, and the boy reportedly responded, "Do you mean teacher?" The pronunciation of the words for "captain" and "teacher" is similar in Korean, according to Reuters.

"Save us! We're on a ship and I think it's sinking."

- Desperate call from boy aboard doomed S. Korean ferry

The boy's frantic call was followed by about 20 other calls from children on board the ship to the emergency number, the fire service officer said. The boy who made the first call is among the missing, according to the report. 

About 250 of the more than 300 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.

While data from the ferry, named Sewol, initially indicated the ship made a J-shaped turn before listing heavily and ultimately sinking, a ministry of ocean and fisheries official said Tuesday the data had been incomplete and that the true path of the ship became clear when the data was fully restored. 

On Tuesday, dozens of police officers in neon green jackets formed a cordon around the dock of Jindo island as bodies pulled from the sea were brought in. Since divers found a way over the weekend to enter the submerged ferry, the death count has shot up. 

Officials said Tuesday that confirmed fatalities had reached 104, with nearly 200 people still missing. If a body lacks identification, details such as height, hair length and clothing are posted on a white signboard for families waiting on the island for news.

The ship's 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. 

Bodies are being identified visually, but family members have been providing DNA samples in case decomposition makes that impossible.

The bodies are then driven in ambulances to two tents: one for men and boys, the other for women and girls. Families listen quietly outside as an official briefs them, then line up and file in. Only relatives are allowed inside.

This heartbreak awaits many families of those still missing from the submerged ferry Sewol, or at least those whose relatives' bodies are ultimately recovered. Families who once dreamed of miraculous rescues now simply hope their loved ones' remains are recovered soon, before the ocean does much more damage. 

"At first, I was just very sad, but now it's like an endless wait," said Woo Dong-suk, a construction worker and uncle of one of the students. "It's been too long already. The bodies must be decayed. The parents' only wish right now is to find the bodies before they are badly decomposed."

In Ansan, funerals were held 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.

The families, 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.

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.

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.

Emergency task force spokesman Koh Myung-seok said bodies have mostly been found on the third and fourth floor of the ferries, where many passengers seemed to have gathered. Many students were also housed in cabins on the fourth floor, near the stern of the ship, Koh said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.