MOKPO, South Korea – A doomed ferry’s captain delayed evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official ordered preparations to abandon ship, raising more questions about whether quick action could have saved scores of passengers still missing Friday and feared dead, according to a transcript of the ship-to-shore exchange and interviews with a crewmember.
The order by an unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center to put on lifejackets and prepare for evacuation came just five minutes after a Wednesday morning distress call by the Sewol ferry as it tilted severely to the side. The ferry, which was bound for Jeju island, replied that “it’s hard for people to move.”
The confirmed death toll from Wednesday’s sinking off southern South Korea was 26, most of bodies found floating in the ocean, the coast guard said. But 48 hours after the sinking the number of deaths was expected to rise sharply with about 270 people missing, many of them high school students on a class trip. Officials said there were 179 survivors.
The captain hasn’t spoken publicly about his decision making, and officials aren’t talking about their investigation, which includes continued talks with the captain and crew. But the new details about communication between the bridge and transportation officials follow a revelation by a crewmember in an interview with The Associated Press that the captain’s eventual evacuation order came at least half an hour after the distress signal.
Meanwhile, strong currents and rain made rescue attempts difficult again as they entered a third day. Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the sunken vessel, where most of the missing passengers are thought to be, said coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in.
Coast guard officials said divers began pumping air into the ship Friday, but it wasn’t immediately clear if the air was for survivors or for a salvage operation. Officials said in a statement that divers were still trying to enter the ship.
South Korean officials also offered a glimpse into their investigation of what may have led to the sinking. They said the accident happened at a point where the ferry from Incheon to Jeju had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-oek said in a briefing that investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn whose degree was so sharp that it caused the ship to list. Park said officials were looking at other possible causes, too.
Park also said crews’ testimonies differed about where the captain was when the ship started listing. The captain was “near” the bridge as the ship continued listing, though Park couldn’t say whether the captain was inside or right outside the bridge.
Angry and bewildered relatives gathered on a nearby island watched the rescue attempts. Some held a Buddhist prayer ritual, crying and praying for their relatives’ safe return.
“It’s heartbreaking if I think about how cold she must be inside the water,” said Lee Yong-soon, 62, the aunt of a missing student, Jeong Da-hye.
“I want to jump into the water with them,” said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of another missing student, Park Ye-ji. “My loved one is under the water and it’s raining. Anger is not enough.”
The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit), cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes of exposure.
Kim, the coast guard spokesman, said two vessels with cranes arrived and would help with the rescue and to salvage the ferry, which sank not far from the southern city of Mokpo and now sits with just part of its keel visible. But salvage operations hadn’t started yet because of the rescue attempts. Salvaging the capsized ship could be risky because the vessel could get wedged deeper in the ocean’s floor, he said.
Out of 29 crewmembers, 20 people, including the captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, survived, the coast guard said.
The captain made a brief, videotaped appearance, although his face was hidden by a gray hoodie. “I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” Lee said. “I don’t know what to say.”
Kim Soo-hyun, a senior coast guard official, said officials were investigating whether the captain got on one of the first rescue boats.
The 146-meter (480-foot) Sewol had left Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea on Tuesday for the overnight journey to the southern resort island of Jeju. There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, which is near Seoul,
It was three hours from its destination Wednesday morning when it began to list for an unknown reason.
Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry with 10 years of shipping experience, said that when the crew gathered on the bridge and sent a distress call, the ship was already listing more than 5 degrees, the critical angle at which a vessel can be brought back to even keel.
The first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were, Oh said.
A third mate reported that the ship could not be righted, and the captain ordered another attempt, which also failed, Oh said. A crew member then tried to reach a lifeboat but fell because the vessel was tilting, prompting the first mate to suggest to the captain that he order an evacuation, Oh said.
About 30 minutes after passengers were told to stay in place, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn’t sure that in the confusion and chaos on the bridge if the order was relayed to the passengers. Several survivors told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.
By then, it was impossible for crew members to move to passengers’ rooms to help them because the ship was tilted at an impossibly acute angle, he said. The delay in evacuation also likely prevented lifeboats from being deployed.
“We couldn’t even move one step. The slope was too big,” said Oh, who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain.
Passenger Koo Bon-hee told the AP that many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break. He wanted to escape earlier but didn’t because of the announcement to stay put.
The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.