SEOUL – "Started search and touched a wall. Groped along the wall... moved along further. Felt a body."
It's a grim diary entry for a harrowing job – the recovery of hundreds of bodies, most of them schoolchildren, from the cold, dark interior of a submerged South Korean ferry that sank more than three weeks ago.
One of the divers who worked on the rescue and recovery operation for nearly all that time kept a daily journal that outlines, in stark detail, the physical and psychological demands placed on the rescue teams.
It follows the progression of the operation, from the early optimism that some passengers might be found in air pockets, to the tragic realisation that there were no survivors beyond the 172 who escaped the vessel before it fully capsized.
"My mind is totally occupied by one thought – find anyone still alive," the journal begins on April 19, three days after the 6,825-tonne Sewol went down.
Of the 476 on board the ferry, 325 were children from the same high school, on an organised trip to the southern resort island of Jeju.
The diver was hired for the operation by a salvage company, Undine Marine Industry, on a temporary contract that forbade him to speak to the media. His journal entries were published this week under the pseudonym "Mr B" by Kookje Shinmun, a local newspaper in the southern city of Busan.
'Sorry, sorry, sorry'
By April 22, the reality had sunk in that the search for survivors had become a search for bodies, even as relatives of the hundreds of missing – waiting on shore – clung to the thinnest of hopes that some may still be brought out alive.
"What have we done to these children?" the entry reads. "Sorry, Sorry, Sorry."
A thank you from a parent for retrieving the body of his child does little to lift the sense of helplessness.
"I don't think I deserve this gratitude," he writes.
The most searing entries are the most recent, recorded as the recovery operation picked up pace and dive teams moved deeper into the sunken ferry's interior.
The divers were under immense pressure from the authorities and the victims' families to retrieve all the trapped bodies as quickly as possible, but the journal shows the sort of challenges they faced working in near zero visibility.
"The torch is almost useless," notes a May 4 entry, as Mr B and his diving partner tried to set up guide ropes inside the ferry at a depth of 40m.
"The visibility is so bad, it's better to just close your eyes and grope with your hands."
Two days later, the journal describes the moment of discovering a body, bumping into something which touch reveals to be an arm belonging to a corpse floating in one of the passenger cabins.
After securing the body, the diver pulls on his life line as a signal to the surface team to pull them up.
"We get stuck in a doorway and I signal them to stop pulling. I get through the doorway and gently guide the body through after me, and then we start rising again."
'I feel the arms first'
He then returns to search the same cabin, knowing that many passengers had complied with crew instructions to stay where they were when the ship began to list sharply to one side.
At first he finds nothing but suddenly comes across a body stuck in a crouched position under one of the sleeping berths.
"I feel the arms first, then the head and the torso.
"The space is too narrow. It's hard to pull it free and the dive time is running out."
The entry then describes clearing bags and debris from the confined space and trying in vain to get both his arms inside and under the body's armpits. "It's still too narrow, but then I grab some clothing at the back of the neck and pull, and the body comes out."
So far there has been one fatality on the rescue team, when a diver was pulled unconscious from the water on Tuesday and later pronounced dead in hospital.
According to the federal disaster force, 24 others have been treated for injuries and decompression sickness.— AFP