MOKPO, South Korea – Fresh questions arose about whether quicker action by the captain of a doomed ferry could have saved lives, even as rescuers scrambled to find hundreds of passengers still missing today.
Officials said they were looking into whether a crewman’s order to abruptly turn the ship contributed to the 6,852-ton Sewol tilting severely to the side and filling with water Wednesday.
The confirmed death toll from Wednesday’s sinking off southern South Korea was 28, the coast guard said. But 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.
New questions were raised by a transcript of a ship-to-shore exchange and interviews by the Associated Press that showed the captain delayed evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official ordered preparations to abandon ship.
The order at 9 a.m. by an unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center to put on life jackets and prepare for evacuation came just five minutes after a Wednesday morning distress call by the Sewol ferry. A crew member on the ferry, which was bound for Jeju Island, replied that “it’s hard for people to move.”
The ship made a sharp turn between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m. Korea time, but it’s not known whether the turn was made voluntarily or because of some external factor, Nam Jae-heon, a director for public relations at the Maritime Ministry, said today.
The captain has not spoken publicly about his decision making. But the new details about communication between the bridge and transportation officials follow a revelation by a crew member in an interview with AP that the captain’s evacuation order came at least half an hour after the 9 a.m. 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, a coast guard spokesman said.
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 had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn whose degree was so sharp that it caused the ship to list. The captain was not on the bridge at the time, Park said, adding that officials were looking at other possible causes, too.
Near the site of the ferry, 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.
“I want to jump into the water with them,” said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of a missing student, Park Ye-ji. “My loved one is under the water and it’s raining. Anger is not enough.”
Out of 29 crew members, 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.”
The 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, near Seoul.
Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry, 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 in the confusion and chaos on the bridge if the order was relayed to the passengers. Several survivors told the AP 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.