Chaos ruled capsizing ferry, as captain escapes

Last Updated 21 April 2014, 19:52 IST

Of all the images from the loss of a ferry in the cold waters off the southwest coast of South Korea last week, perhaps none has angered South Koreans more than that of the captain, an orange life vest strapped to his torso, awkwardly stepping off his half-submerged vessel to the safety of a rescue boat, even as hundreds of his passengers remained trapped inside.

But a portrait of the ship’s last voyage is emerging from crew members, survivors and a transcript of the vessel’s final 40 minutes of communications with emergency dispatchers on shore.

It is a scene of rapidly building chaos in which the captain and his crew faced a series of tough choices, questionable decisions and mechanical failures — including the apparent loss of the onboard communications system.

Those factors may have all contributed to the ship’s sinking and the death of at least scores, and more likely hundreds, of people.

“The Coast Guard will arrive in 15 minutes; please tell your passengers to wear life jackets,” emergency dispatchers told the ferry about half an hour after it radioed for help.

“Now we have lost our ability to broadcast our messages,” the ship responded. Crew members, using the ferry’s intercom, had previously instructed passengers to stay where they were, thinking it would be safer.

“Even if you can’t use your speaker, do your best to go out and ensure that your passengers wear life jackets or thick clothes,” emergency dispatchers said.

“If our passengers evacuate, will they be immediately rescued?” the ship responded. “Let them float even with life rings. Hurry!” the dispatchers responded.

A minute later, they added: “We don’t know the situation there. So the captain should make a final decision, and he should hurry to decide whether to evacuate them.”

A communications officer, in a separate part of the ferry, said he never received instructions from the bridge to tell passengers to abandon ship.

One crew member on the bridge said he heard the captain give the order to evacuate, but that he did not hear the message broadcast to the passengers. Survivors have not reported hearing it.

When the ferry, the Sewol, began its overnight journey at 9 pm last Tuesday, embarking from a pier in Incheon, west of Seoul, and heading toward the southern resort island of Jeju, its voyage seemed like so many others the ship had taken.

The 460-foot-long, five-story ferry plied this 264-mile route twice a week, along a busy shipping lane down the west coast of South Korea.

It had 476 passengers on board — 60 per cent of its capacity.

Most of them were second-year high school students on what was supposed to be the last school trip before they entered a pressure-cooker year of cramming for college entrance exams.

The ship also carried a full load of cargo, including 124 cars, 56 trucks and 105 shipping containers.

On Monday, prosecutors detained the Sewol’s three remaining ship mates and its chief engineer for questioning.

Investigators say the Sewol appeared to make a sharp turn to the left around the time it began to tilt, and they were looking into whether unsecured cargo may have shifted, contributing to the accident.

The helmsman on duty, Jo Jun-gi, later told reporters that “I made a mistake of my own, but the ship turned much more than usual.

” A prosecutor said investigators were also looking into ‘discrepancies’ between Park’s and Jo’s versions of what happened.

At 8:48 am, Oh said, he was jolted awake as his body was thrown against the port side wall of his quarters.

The vessel had begun to list. He lurched from his room barefoot and scrambled along the corridor of the ship toward the bridge.

he first person he saw was Lee, the ship’s captain.

Lee, who had been in his room, had just clambered out of his cabin and, with the ship slowly turning onto its side, was now holding onto the doorway of the pilothouse, trying to pull himself inside and get control of the ship.

Oh pushed the captain up and into the room and followed as well. Soon, all of the ship’s mates and helmsmen had gathered there. 

Lee, clutching onto a pillar near the map table at the centre of the bridge, began barking orders.

“The ship was already listing so heavily everyone was hanging onto whatever they could grab,” Oh recalled. “It was clear we were in a really bad situation.” That situation would in short order get even worse.

Investigators trying to reconstruct events have been weighing a range of possible causes, including pilot error; an unexpected current; failure in the ship’s ballast; loose or unbalanced cargo; a recent addition of more cabins on the upper deck of the 20-year-old ferry that may have impaired its ability to recover balance; and loosely abided safety regulations.

Asked to stay

Two levels below, Kang Hae-seong, one of the ship’s communications officers, was in the broadcasting room and trying to figure out what to do.

With the ship listing about 30 degrees and cutlery falling off the shelves, he made an announcement on the public address system urging the passengers to stay where they were and not to move hastily.

“I didn’t have time to look at the manual but I thought I should calm people down first,” he recalled in an interview. Lee said on Friday that he did not order an immediate evacuation because he feared the passengers would be endangered by the strong currents and the cold water. 

Oh said  Lee first tried to get the ship’s life rafts deployed. His crew tried but could not make it to the lifeboats.

By 9:18 am, the Sewol reported that it was listing at an angle of more than 50 degrees.

“Impossible to evacuate,” someone on the Sewol’s bridge told emergency dispatchers by radio. Down below, Kang contacted the Coast Guard using his cellphone and then continued to tell people on the public address system to remain where they were “a little while longer” because the rescue boats were coming.

Oh said he heard Lee, before leaving the bridge, give the order to evacuate, but Oh did not hear it broadcast. 

Kang, the communications officer, said he never received the order. All the crew members began to flee the bridge.

More than two-thirds of the 29-member crew, including the entire navigation team, survived. Only about a third of the passengers — 174 — got out alive. By Monday, 61 people had been confirmed dead and 241 were still missing.

Oh saw Lee slide down the floor of the wheelhouse and crash through a door in the port-side wall. The helmsman said it was not clear whether the captain was evacuating or had just lost his grip of the pole and fell.

He did not see Lee again until an image of him was broadcast on television: The captain was in handcuffs, charged with accidental homicide.

He was also charged with abandoning his passengers in a time of crisis, a crime punishable by up to life in prison.

(Published 21 April 2014, 19:52 IST)

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