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 continued…