Doomed ferry's sharp turn, slow evacuation probed

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Friday, April 18, 2014


MOKPO, South Korea -- Investigations into South Korea's ferry disaster focused on the sharp turn it took just before it started listing and whether a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives, officials said Friday, as rescuers scrambled to find 270 people still missing and feared dead.

Tragedy struck in another way Friday when a high school vice principal who had been rescued from the ferry was found hanging from a pine tree on Jindo, an island near the ferry wreckage where rescued passengers have been housed, police said.

Besides the teacher, at least 28 people are now confirmed dead from the ferry, The Sewol, which sank Wednesday. Officials said there were 179 survivors and about 270 people remain missing, many of them high school students. With the chances of their survival becoming slimmer with each passing hour, this sinking was shaping to be one of South Korea's worst disasters, made all the more heartbreaking by the likely loss of so many young people, aged 16 or 17.

The ship had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 475 people, including 325 students. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore at 9 a.m., with only the dark blue keel jutting out over the surface. By late Friday, even that had disappeared, and rescuers floated two giant beige colored buoys to mark the area. Navy divers attached underwater lifting bags to the 6,852-ton ferry to prevent it from sinking further, the Defense Ministry said.

Coast guard officials said divers began pumping air into the ship Friday in an attempt to sustain any survivors.

On the shore of a nearby island, angry and bewildered relatives 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 another missing student, Park Ye-ji. "My loved one is under the water and it's raining. Anger is not enough."

South Korean officials offered some information about 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 in a briefing that investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn whose angle was so sharp that it caused the ship to list.

Yonhap news agency reported that the third mate was a 26-year-old with a year of experience steering ships and five months on the Sewol.

The ship made a sharp turn between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m. local 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 Friday.

Another angle being probed was the captain's role in the disaster.

A transcript of a ship-to-shore exchange and interviews by The Associated Press showed the captain delayed the evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official told the ship it might have to evacuate.

The recommendation by an unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center came at 9 a.m., just five minutes after a distress call by the Sewol. In the recording of the conversation, the Sewol crewmember says: "Currently the body of the ship has listed to the left. The containers have listed as well."

The Jeju VTS officer responds: "OK. Any loss of human life or injuries?" The ship's answer is: "It's impossible to check right now. The body of the ship has tilted, and it's impossible to move."

The VTS officer then says "Yes, OK. Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship."

"It's hard for people to move," replies the crew member on the radio.

Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry, told the AP that the first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were, Oh said.

About 30 minutes later, 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 that they never heard any evacuation order.

The captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, has not spoken publicly about his decision making; officials continue interviews with him and the crew.

Of the 29 crewmembers, 20, including the captain, survived, the coast guard said. Officials were investigating whether Lee got on one of the first rescue boats.

Lee has 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."

Park, the prosecutor, also said crews' testimonies differed about where the captain was when the ship started listing. As that listing continued, the captain was "near" the bridge, Park said, but he couldn't say exactly where.

On Friday, strong currents and rain made rescue attempts difficult. Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the sunken vessel, where most of the missing passengers are thought to be trapped, said coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in.

Three vessels with cranes arrived at the site to possibly begin salvaging the ferry. But they will not hoist the ship before getting approval from family members of those believed trapped inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

The school vice principal found hanging Friday was identified as Kang Min-kyu, the lead guide for the school trip. No suicide note was found near the site, but Yonhap news agency reported that Kang had felt guilty for being alive while many of those under his care were missing.

Also Friday, prosecutors raided the offices of the ship's owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, in Incheon.

The operator of the ferry added more cabin rooms to three floors after its 2012 purchase the ship, which was built in Japan in 1994, an official at the private Korean Register of Shipping told the AP on Friday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not allowed to discuss matters under investigation, said the extension work between October 2012 and February 2013 increased the Sewol's weight by 187 tons and added enough room for 117 more people. The Sewol had a capacity of 921 when it sank.

As is common in South Korea, the ship's owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, paid for a safety check by the Korean Register of Shipping, the official said, which found that the Sewol passed all safety tests, including whether the ship could stabilize in the event of tilting to the right or to the left after adding more weight.

Ian Winkle, a British naval architect and ferry expert said many ships have such modifications, to increase capacity, for instance.

The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed. (AP)

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