Korea ferry evacuation crippled by indecision

High school students and citizens hold candles and pray for the safe return of passengers. Picture: AP
High school students and citizens hold candles and pray for the safe return of passengers. Picture: AP
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THE evacuation of the South Korean ferry that sank last week was mired in confusion and indecision well after it began listing, according to a newly released radio transcript.

It suggests the chaotic situation may have added to a death toll that could exceed 300.

About 30 minutes after the Sewol began tilting, a crew member asked a marine traffic controller whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned ship off the country’s southern coast. The crew member posed the question three times in succession.

That followed several statements from the ship that people aboard could not move and another in which someone declared that it was “impossible to broadcast” instructions.

Many people followed the captain’s initial order to stay below deck, where it is feared they remained entombed last night. Fifty-eight bodies have been recovered, and about 240 people were still missing.

“Even if it’s impossible to broadcast, please go out and let the passengers wear lifejackets and put on more clothing,” an unidentified official at Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Centre urged at 9:24am on Wednesday, 29 minutes after the ferry first reported trouble, according to the transcript released by South Korea’s 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,” the traffic-centre 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 ten minutes, although another civilian ship was already nearby and had told controllers that it would rescue anyone who went overboard.

The ferry sank with 476 people on board, many of them students from a single high school. The cause of the disaster is not yet known, but prosecutors have said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list.

Several crew members, including the captain, have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning passengers.

More than 170 people 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 took more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order, which several passengers have said they never heard.

The confirmed death toll jumped to 58 as 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.

Families of the missing are staying on Jindo Island, where information sheets taped to the walls of a gymnasium offered details to help identify any corpses, including gender, height, length of hair and