South Korea ferry disaster: Communications log suggests gross negligence of crew

Leaked oil is seen on the surface of the sea near the site where the capsized passenger ship Sewol sank in the sea off Jindo April 20, 2014. The ill-fated Sewol ferry's crew might have delayed evacuating the passengers despite repeated instructi
Leaked oil is seen on the surface of the sea near the site where the capsized passenger ship Sewol sank in the sea off Jindo April 20, 2014. The ill-fated Sewol ferry's crew might have delayed evacuating the passengers despite repeated instructions to do so, Jindo maritime traffic service's communications log shows on Sunday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The ill-fated Sewol ferry's crew might have delayed evacuating the passengers despite repeated instructions to do so, Jindo maritime traffic service's communications log shows on Sunday.

The disclosed communications log detailing the conversation between the Sewol and the Jindo Vessel Traffic Service showed that the crew was told on a number of occasions to implement emergency measures.

However, the Sewol's communications officer focused on whether the Coast Guard was on its way without relaying the orders to the passengers.

Members of the Navy's Ship Salvage Unit engage in search operations for the ferry Sewol's passengers on Sunday off the coast of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province.

The log showed that the Sewol was in communication with the Jindo VTS from 9:07am until 9:37am on Wednesday and exchanged 11 transmissions.

In its first transmission, Sewol told the VTS that the ship was sinking and requested the Coast Guard's assistance. Three minutes later, the ship's communications officer said that the vessel was about to "go over". At 9:14am, the officer said that evacuation was not possible.

Between 9:23am and 9:24am, Jindo VTS instructed the crew two times to inform the passengers to put on life vests. The crew member, however, responded by saying that the ship's broadcasting system was down and inquired about the whereabouts of Coast Guard vessels for the third time.

At the time, a number of crew members were holding out on the bridge, the highest point on the ship.

It is not yet known whether the passengers were told to abandon ship, as claimed by the ship's captain Lee Joon Seok before the crew evacuated. After the final communication between the VTS and the ferry, communications were cut off, implying that the ship's crew began evacuating from about 9:37am.

Lee and 14 crew members directly involved in sailing the vessel were taken to safety, with the captain being among the first to be rescued.

The revelation is feeding the already seething public outrage over the alleged actions of the captain.

Lee is accused of abandoning ship without seeing to the safety of the passengers first. Along with Lee, one of the Sewol's three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third officer have been placed under arrest on charges of negligence and manslaughter.

The third officer is said to have been operating the vessel in the absence of Lee when the incident that led to Sewol's sinking occurred.

"I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow in apology to the families of the victims," Lee told reporters on Saturday morning as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court on the way to jail. But he defended his much-criticised decision to wait for about 30 minutes before ordering the evacuation.

"At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean was low and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties," Lee said.

Authorities are currently looking into communication data from KakaoTalk, a mobile messaging service used by crew members and passengers before the ferry sank on Wednesday morning. On Sunday afternoon, a local court issued a search warrant for investigators to obtain such data from the company. A spokesman of the company said it would closely cooperate with the investigators on the matter.

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