MOKPO, South Korea (AP) — An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank off South Korea's southern coast, likely with about 290 people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list, a crew member said Thursday.
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, a 58-year-old crew member told The Associated Press.
The loss of that precious half-hour may have deprived many passengers of the opportunity to escape as The Sewol sank on Wednesday, not too 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 that the missing 287 passengers — many high school students — were dead.
The increasingly anxious search for the missing was hampered Thursday by strong currents, rain and bad visibility.
There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students on a school trip to the tourist island of Jeju in the south of the country. The ferry had traveled overnight from Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea, and was three hours short of its destination when the ship began to list. The cause is not yet known.
The Sewol now sits — with just part of its keel visible — in waters a little north of Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland and about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul.
After the captain's initial announcement, officers tried desperately to set the listing ship right while one crew member phoned in a distress call to the shore from his mobile phone. When the maneuvers did not work, the captain decided the passengers should evacuate, Oh said. But by then it was impossible for crew members to move to passengers' room to help them because the ship was tilted at an impossibly acute angle.
"We couldn't even move one step. The slope was too big," said Oh, who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain.
Passenger Koo Bon-hee, 36, told the AP that 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," Koo, who was on a business trip to Jeju with a co-worker, 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."
It is not clear if the captain's actions violated any procedures, and he may have believed at the time that it was still possible to control the vessel, which would have made the order to evacuate unnecessary. Many passengers said they did not even hear the evacuation order.
Worried and angry parents of the students gathered at Danwon High School in Ansan, which is near Seoul, while other relatives assembled on Jindo, an island near where the ferry slipped beneath the surface, leaving only the blue-tipped, forward edge of the keel visible.
In Mokpo, a city close to the accident site, relatives of the dead students wailed and sobbed as ambulances drove away with the bodies, headed to Ansan. The families, who spent a mostly sleepless night at the Mokpo hospital, followed the ambulances in their cars. At the school, some desperate relatives lashed out in frustration, screaming threats at journalists. On Jindo Island, also near the accident site, one woman passed out and was carried to an ambulance.
The family of one of the dead, 24-year-old teacher Choi Hye-jung, spoke about a young woman who loved to boast of how her students would come to her office and give her hugs.
"She was very active and wanted to be a good leader," her father, Choi Jae-kyu, 53, said at Mokpo Jung-Ang Hospital while waiting for the arrival of his daughter's body. Choi's mother, sitting on a bench at the hospital, sobbed quietly with her head bent down on her knee.
While more than 400 rescuers searched nearby waters, coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said that in the next two days, three vessels with cranes onboard would arrive to help with the rescue and salvage the ship. Divers were working in shifts in an attempt to get inside the vessel, he said, but strong currents wouldn't allow them to enter.
Kim said that divers planned to pump oxygen into the ship to help any survivors, but first they had to get inside the ferry.
The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit), cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes of exposure, officials said. The ocean was 37 meters (121 feet) deep in the area.
Kim said coast guard officials were questioning the captain, but declined to provide details or speculate on the cause of sinking. Kim denied earlier reports by Yonhap news agency that the ferry had turned too swiftly when it was supposed to make a slow turn. He also declined to say whether the ferry had drifted from its usual route.
"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," a man identified by broadcaster YTN and Yonhap news agency as the captain, 60-year-old Lee Joon-seok, said in brief comments shown on TV, his face hidden beneath a gray hoodie. "I don't know what to say."
The coast guard said it found two more bodies in the sea Thursday morning, pushing the death toll to nine. The dead include a female crew member in her 20s, five high school students and two teachers. Dozens were injured. Coast guard officials put the number of survivors early Thursday at 179.
The Sewol, a 146-meter (480-foot) vessel that can reportedly hold more than 900 people, set sail Tuesday from Incheon, in northwestern South Korea, on an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.
The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Ansan and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.