The official death toll in the South Korean ferry sinking soared to 58 on Sunday after divers finally succeeded in entering the vessel, which a newly released transcript shows was crippled with confusion and indecision well after it began listing dangerously.
Three times in succession, and about half an hour after the ferry Sewol began tilting on Wednesday, a crew member asked Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center (VTS) whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned ship off South Korea’s southern coast. That followed several statements from the ship that it was impossible for people aboard to even move, and another in which it said it was “impossible to broadcast” instructions.
Many people followed the captain’s initial order to stay below deck, where it is feared they remain trapped. About 240 people are still missing.
“Even if it’s impossible to broadcast, please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing,” an unidentified VTS official urged at 9:24 a.m., 29 minutes after the Sewol first reported trouble, according to the transcript, released by the South Korean coast guard.
“If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?” the unidentified crew member asked.
“At least make them wear life rings and make them escape!” was the response.
“If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?” the crew member asked again.
“Don’t let them go bare — at least make them wear life rings and make them escape!” the VTS official repeated. “The rescue of human lives from the Sewol ferry ... the captain should make his own decision and evacuate them. We don’t know the situation very well. The captain should make the final decision and decide whether you’re going to evacuate passengers or not.”
“I’m not talking about that,” the crew member said. “I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?”
The VTS official then said patrol boats would arrive in 10 minutes, but did not mention that another civilian ship was already nearby and had told VTS 10 minutes earlier that it would rescue anyone who went overboard.
Only 174 people are known to have survived the sinking of the Sewol, which had been on its way from the South Korean port city of Incheon to the southern island of Jeju. The captain initially ordered passengers to stay in their rooms, and took more than a half hour to issue an evacuation order — an order several passengers have said they never heard.
The confirmed death toll jumped from 33 to 58 within 24 hours as divers, hampered for days by strong currents, bad weather and low visibility, finally found a way inside the sunken vessel. They quickly discovered more than a dozen bodies there in what almost certainly was just the beginning of a massive and grim recovery effort. Some of the bodies found Sunday were recovered outside the ship.
Divers, who once pumped air into the ferry in the slim hope that survivors were inside, have yet to find anyone alive there.
The Sewol sank with 476 people on board, 323 of them students from a high school in Ansan. The 16- and 17-year-old students make up only 75 of the survivors, and about 225 of the missing. At least 23 of those confirmed dead are students, according to coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in.
A 21-year-old South Korean sailor, surnamed Cho, also died from injuries he sustained Wednesday while working on a warship going to help rescue passengers in the ferry, said Cmdr. Yim Myung-soo of the South Korean navy.
The heartbreaking task of recovering the bodies led to yet another: identifying them. Information sheets taped to the walls of a gymnasium on Jindo island where families of the missing are staying listed details of the bodies such as sex, height, length of hair and clothing.
It was too little for Lee Joung-hwa, a friend of a crew member who is among the missing. “If only they could have made some kind of image of the person’s face. Who can tell who this person is just by height and weight?” Lee said.
A woman with a blue baseball cap shouted complaints at government officials who were seated nearby, working at their desks. “I can’t live like this! I’m so anxious!” she yelled. “How can I trust the police?”
Anguished families of the missing, fearful they might be left without even their loved ones’ bodies, also blocked the prime minister’s car during a visit and attempted a long protest march to the presidential Blue House in Seoul, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the north.
About 100 relatives walked for around six hours before some 200 police officers in neon jackets blocked them from continuing on a main road. The relatives said they wanted to travel to the Blue House to voice their complaints to the president.
“The government is the killer,” they shouted as they pushed against a police barricade.
“We want an answer from the person in charge about why orders are not going through and nothing is being done,” said Lee Woon-geun, father of 17-year-old missing passenger Lee Jung-in. “They are clearly lying and kicking the responsibility to others.”
Earlier Sunday morning, relatives of the missing blocked the car of Prime Minister Chung Hong-won and demanded a meeting with President Park Geun-hye, as Chung made a visit to Jindo. Chung later returned to the gymnasium, but met only with a number of representatives of the family members in a side office.
Relatives are desperate to retrieve bodies before they decompose beyond recognition, Lee said.
“After four or five days, the body starts to decay. When it’s decayed, if you try to hold a hand it might fall off,” he said. “I miss my son. I’m really afraid I might not get to find his body.”
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested on Saturday, along with one of the Sewol’s three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third mate, on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. The third mate was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time. The cause of the sinking is not known, but prosecutors said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said the third mate has refused to tell investigators why she made the sharp turn. He said that she had a “psychological shock” and fainted under questioning, but that she told investigators she did not need medical attention.
Prosecutors have not identified the third mate, but a fellow crew member identified her as Park Han-kyul.
Yang said about 40 people have been barred from leaving South Korea while authorities investigate the sinking.
The captain, as he was taken from court in Mokpo on Saturday, had explained his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation.
“At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” Lee told reporters. “The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time.”
The Sewol made its first distress call at 8:55 a.m. Wednesday to a different vessel traffic services centre on Jeju island; the government released that transcript Friday. “It’s impossible to move,” the ship told the Jeju VTS at 9 a.m., a message it repeated to the Jindo office.
“I can’t move even one foot from where I am. I’m holding the wall, barely standing,” the crew member who spoke to the Jindo VTS official said at 9:18 a.m.
By then, a civilian ship was in the area; it told Jindo VTS at 9:14 a.m. that it was ready to help passengers, according to the transcript released Sunday. But the VTS official did not tell that to the Sewol, according to the transcript, and it is unclear whether the ferry crew was aware of it.
As the ship continued to tilt, the crew member continued to raise questions about the details of an evacuation and rescue. After being told at 9:27 that a helicopter was one minute away, the crew member said, “There are too many passengers. A helicopter is not enough.”
At 9:29, the crew member said, “I can see other ships,” then asked the Jindo VTS official to tell one of the ships to move from the Sewol’s front to its left.
It was not until 9:37 that it was clear to VTS that the ferry had given an order to evacuate: “People are trying to evacuate on their left side. I did broadcast but it’s impossible to move to the left.” The ferry’s last communication with the official came seconds later.