Abandon ship order ‘may not have been relayed’

South Korean Coast Guard officers search for missing passengers aboard the sunken ferry
South Korean Coast Guard officers search for missing passengers aboard the sunken ferry
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An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the stricken South Korean ferry because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilise the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos, a crew member says.

The first instructions from the captain were for the passengers to put on life jackets and stay put, and it was not until about 30 minutes later that he ordered an evacuation, Oh Yong-seok, 58, told The Associated Press.

But he wasn’t sure if the captain’s order, given to crew members, was actually relayed to passengers on the public address system. Several survivors also said they never heard any evacuation order.

The loss of that precious time may have deprived many passengers of the opportunity to escape as The Sewol sank on Wednesday, not far from the southern city of Mokpo.

Nine people, including five students and two teachers, were confirmed dead, but the toll was expected to jump amid fears for the missing 287 passengers – many secondary school students. The confirmed fatalities include a female crew member in her 20s, five students and two teachers. Coastguard officials put the number of survivors yesterday at 179.

There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students on a school trip.

The cause of the disaster is not yet known.

The Sewol now sits with just part of its keel visible .

The search for the missing was hampered by strong currents, rain and bad visibility.

Mr Oh, a helmsmen, said that when the crew gathered on the bridge and sent a distress call the ship was already listing more than five degrees, the critical angle at which the ship can be brought back to even keel.

At about that time, a third mate reported that the ship could not be righted, and the captain ordered another attempt, which also failed, Mr Oh said. A crew member then tried to reach a lifeboat but tripped, prompting the first mate to suggest that everyone should evacuate. The captain agreed and ordered an evacuation, but Mr Oh said he does not recall the message being conveyed on the PA system.

By then it was impossible for crew members to move to passengers’ rooms to help them because the ship was tilted at an impossibly acute angle.

Passenger Koo Bon-hee, 36, said many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break. He wanted to escape earlier but an announcement said passengers should stay put.

“The rescue wasn’t done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time,” Mr Koo said from a hospital bed in Mokpo where he was treated for minor injuries. “If people had jumped into the water ... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out.”

While more than 400 rescuers searched nearby waters, coastguard spokesman Kim Jae-in said that in the next two days, three vessels with cranes onboard would arrive to help with the rescue. Divers were working in shifts in an attempt to get inside the vessel, he said, but strong currents wouldn’t allow them to enter.

Mr Kim said coastguard officials were questioning the captain. “I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” a man identified by journalists as the captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, said in brief comments shown on TV, his face hidden beneath a grey hoodie. “I don’t know what to say.”