April 21, 2014: A relative of a passenger aboard the sunken ferry Sewol shouts the name of her missing family member as she waits for their return at a port in Jindo, South Korea.
South Korea’s president described the actions of a sunken ferry’s crew as “unforgivable” and “murderous” Monday as a prosecutor said that four more crew members had been detained on charges that they had allegedly failed to protect the stricken vessel’s passengers.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye made the comments Monday at a Cabinet briefing, saying that the captain and crew “told the passengers to stay put but they themselves became the first to escape, after deserting the passengers.” Park added that “legally and ethically, this is an unimaginable act.”
Senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don told reporters Monday that two first mates, one second mate and a chief engineer had been accused of abandoning the ship. Ahn says prosecutors are considering whether to ask a court for a formal arrest warrant that would allow for a longer period of investigation. South Koreans can only be detained for 48 hours without a court-issued formal arrest warrant. The ferry’s captain and two other crewmembers were previously formally arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need.
The announcement came as the confirmed death toll from Wednesday’s sinking reached 64, with approximately 240 of the ship’s 476 passengers, many of them high school students on a holiday trip, still missing. Divers gained access to the ship over the weekend and are expected to find more bodies trapped below decks, where passengers had remained, obeying the captain’s initial order not to evacuate the vessel. Efforts to reach the capsized vessel had been thwarted for three days by bad weather and strong currents.
The discovery of bodies has dashed the faint hopes of some families who have gathered on the island of Jindo, near the site of the wreck. Relatives have been asked to identify their loved ones using the slimmest of clues. Many favored hoodies and track pants. One girl painted her fingernails red and toenails black. Another had braces on her teeth.
Meanwhile, a newly released transcript shows the ship was crippled by confusion and indecision well after it began listing Wednesday. The transcript suggests that the chaos may have added to a death toll that could eventually exceed 300.
According to the transcript released by South Korea’s coast guard, about 30 minutes after the Sewol began tilting a crew member asked a marine traffic controller whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned ship off South Korea’s southern coast. The crew member posed the question three times in succession.
That followed several statements from the ship that people aboard could not move and another in which someone said that it was “impossible to broadcast” instructions.
An unidentified official at Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center told the crew that they should “go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing.”
“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 traffic-center 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 traffic 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 traffic official then said patrol boats would arrive in 10 minutes, though another civilian ship was already nearby and had told controllers that it would rescue anyone who went overboard.
The cause of the disaster is not yet known, but prosecutors have said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list.
More than 170 people survived the sinking of the Sewol, which had been on its way from the South Korean port city of Incheon to the southern tourist island of Jeju. The captain took more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order, which several passengers have said they never heard.
Dozens of relatives have started camping out at the port in Jindo to be closer to where the search was taking place, sleeping in tents in the open. Volunteers provided food and drinks and ran cellphone charging stations. A Buddhist monk in white robes stood facing the water and chanted in a calm monotone as several relatives stood behind him, their hands pressed together and heads bowed in prayer.
Anguished families, fearful they might be left without even their loved ones’ bodies, vented rage Sunday over the government’s handling of the crisis.
About 100 relatives attempted a long protest march to the presidential Blue House in Seoul, about 250 miles to the north, saying they wanted to voice their complaints to President Park Geun-hye. They walked for about six hours before police officers in neon jackets blocked a main road.
“The government is the killer,” they shouted as they pushed against a police barricade.
“We want an answer from the person in charge about why orders are not going through and nothing is being done,” said Lee Woon-geun, father of 17-year-old missing passenger Lee Jung-in. “They are clearly lying and kicking the responsibility to others.”
He said relatives are desperate to retrieve bodies before they decompose beyond recognition.
“After four or five days, the body starts to decay. When it’s decayed, if you try to hold a hand, it might fall off,” he said. “I miss my son. I’m really afraid I might not get to find his body.”
The Sewol’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested Saturday, along with one of the ship’s three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third mate. The third mate was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said the third mate has refused to tell investigators why she made the sharp turn. Prosecutors have not named the third mate, but a fellow crew member identified her as Park Han-kyul.
As he was taken from court in Mokpo on Saturday, the captain explained his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation.
“At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold,” Lee told reporters, describing his fear that passengers, even if they were wearing life jackets, could drift away “and face many other difficulties.”
He said rescue boats had not yet arrived, and there were no civilian vessels nearby.