JINDO, South Jeolla Province ― Panic-stricken and fumbling for responses, the crew of the Sewol ferry dithered over the evacuation of passengers in the crucial final moments before it sank, a transcript released Sunday revealed.
The transcript suggests that the chaos may have added to the death toll that could eventually exceed 300. Many people followed the captain’s initial order to stay below deck, where it is feared they remain trapped.
In the final nerve-wracking moments before the vessel began listing dangerously, an unidentified crew member on the 6,825-ton Sewol repeatedly asked an official from Jindo Vessel Traffic Services whether help was on the way.
“We are listing. Now we are about to go down,” the crew member said. “It has tilted so much and we can hardly move.”
In another message, the crew member revealed that safety instructions couldn’t be relayed to passengers as the PA system on board was broken at that crucial moment.
Regardless, the VTS official responded, “Please advise passengers to wear life jackets and wear as many layers as possible.”
“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,” the traffic-center official responded.
“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 traffic 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 traffic official then said patrol boats would arrive in 10 minutes, though another civilian ship was already nearby and had told controllers that it would rescue anyone who went overboard.
The dramatic transcript released by South Korean officials is fueling anger among distraught relatives of the passengers, some of whom scuffled with police on Sunday over what they say has been a botched response to the disaster.
The ship’s crew members are coming under vehement criticism over the delay in mobilizing passengers as the ship first sank, a possibly fatal error of judgment before the vessel fully submerged with hundreds trapped on board.
Experts have suggested that many more people might have escaped if they had moved to reach evacuation points before the ship listed sharply and water started flooding in.
The cause of the disaster is not yet known, but prosecutors have said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list.
Investigators arrested ferry captain Lee Joon-seok on Saturday along with a helmsman and the ship’s relatively inexperienced third officer, charging them with negligence and failing to secure the safety of hundreds of passengers.
More than 170 people survived the sinking of the Sewol, which was heading from Incheon port to the southern tourist island of Jeju. The captain reportedly took more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order, which several passengers have said they never heard.
The confirmed death toll climbed over the weekend after divers finally found a way inside the sunken vessel and quickly discovered more than a dozen bodies. They had been hampered for days by strong currents, bad weather and low visibility.
(From news reports)