South Korea ferry: Divers recover bodies, transcript shows confusion

<i>This post has been updated throughout with the latest developments.</i>

SEOUL -- Divers reached the hull of the sunken Sewol ferry Sunday, recovering 16 bodies and bringing the confirmed death toll to 50. With more than 250 people still missing since the ship went down Wednesday, hope of finding survivors has all but vanished.

The South Korean navy announced Sunday that one of its sailors who had been participating in rescue efforts has died of a head injury sustained Wednesday. The sailor died Saturday night, the navy said.

Divers had been struggling with strong currents and poor visibility in their attempts to reach the Sewol’s hull. Since the sinking, no survivors have been found.


Throughout the crisis, officials have released varying figures for the numbers of dead and missing, leading to confusion and anger among passengers’ families, many of whom remain camped out at a gymnasium in Jindo, a port town near where the Sewol went down.

A partial transcript released Sunday shows confusion and indecision between the ferry and shore well after the vessel began listing dangerously, possibly adding to the death toll, the Associated Press reported.

Three times in succession, and about half an hour after the Sewol began tilting Wednesday, a crew member asked Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center, or VTS, whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned ship, AP reported. That followed several statements from the ship that it was impossible for people aboard to even move, and another in which it said it was “impossible to broadcast” instructions.

Many people followed the captain’s initial order to stay below deck, where it is feared they remain trapped.

“Even if it’s impossible to broadcast, please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing,” an unidentified VTS official urged at 9:24 a.m., 29 minutes after the Sewol 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 VTS 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 VTS 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 VTS official then said patrol boats would arrive in 10 minutes, though another civilian ship was already nearby and had told VTS 10 minutes earlier that it would rescue anyone who went overboard.

PHOTOS: South Korea ferry sinks

In comments made to reporters during his police arraignment and broadcast Saturday, the captain explained the decision to tell passengers — including hundreds of high school students — to remain seated after the vessel began taking on water and eventually sank Wednesday.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, said the decision was made out of fear that passengers would be swept away if they went out on deck. He also noted that at the time of the announcement rescue boats had not yet arrived. However, that failed to explain why he was among the first off the boat; in cases of such a disaster, South Korea’s Seafarers Act requires the captain to remain on the ship until passengers are off.

Lee and two of his subordinates have been arrested as authorities investigate how the ship capsized and whether the crew followed proper evacuation procedures.

The Sewol was en route from Incheon, on South Korea’s northwest coast, to the southern resort island of Jeju when it turned sharply, listed and began taking on water.

Borowiec is a special correspondent.