SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea on Tuesday ended underwater searches for nine bodies still missing from April's ferry disaster that killed more than 300 people in one of the country's deadliest disasters in decades.
The announcement came hours before a South Korean court issues verdicts on the ship's crew members charged with negligence and abandonment of passengers in the disaster. Prosecutors have demanded a death penalty for the ship's captain and life sentences for three other crew members.
Searches for bodies and ferry wreckage have been underway since the Sewol sank on April 16 on a trip to a resort island. About seven months after the sinking, 295 bodies have been retrieved but nine people are still missing. Most of the dead were teenage students on a school trip.
Oceans and Fisheries Minister Lee Ju-young told a televised news conference that the searches will stop as of Tuesday as there was only a remote chance of finding the missing bodies. "The government's conclusion is that searches by divers have reached its limit," he said.
Lee said cabins in the ferry have collapsed and winter is coming, placing divers in a "very dangerous situation." Lee said family members of the missing people have asked the government to stop the underwater searches.
"As our loved ones remain trapped in the cold waters, this decision is unbearably painful for us. But we request that the search operations to be stopped from now" because of safety concerns, a relative of one of the missing tearfully told a separate news conference Tuesday, according to report from the YTN television station.
Two civilian divers died after falling unconscious during searches, according to Lee's ministry. Lee said he feels sorry for failing to keep a government promise to find all the missing bodies.
He said the government will decide whether to raise the ship after discussing it with experts and the family members. The families have worried that raising the ship would damage the bodies or allow them to be swept away.
The ferry sinking has caused an outburst of national grief and anger, with authorities blaming the disaster on excessive cargo on the ship, poor rescue efforts, negligence by crew members and corruption by the ship's owners.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.