JINDO, South Korea — The captain was among the first to flee. Only a couple of the 44 life rafts aboard were deployed. The hundreds of passengers were instructed over the intercom to “stay inside and wait” as the ship leaned to one side and began to sink, dragging scores of students on a school trip down with it.
“I repeatedly told people to calm themselves and stay where they were for an hour,” Kang Hae-seong, the communications officer on the South Korean ferry that sank Wednesday, said from his hospital bed. He added that he could not recall taking part in any evacuation drills for the ship, and that when a real emergency came, “I didn’t have time to look at the manual for evacuation.”
It took 2½ hours for the ferry, the Sewol, to capsize and become submerged in the blue-gray waters off the southwestern tip of South Korea. Yet in that time, only 179 of the 475 people believed to have been on board were rescued. By Thursday evening, the confirmed death toll was 25.
As rescuers battle bad weather and dwindling hopes to search for the 271 people still missing, most of them students, evidence is growing that human error contributed to one of South Korea’s worst disasters in recent decades.
Kim Su-hyun, a provincial Coast Guard chief, told reporters Thursday that the ship’s captain, Lee Jun-seok, stood accused of violating his responsibilities by abandoning the ferry ahead of most of his passengers. Coast Guard officials said they were reviewing possible criminal charges.
“I can’t lift my face before the passengers and family members of those missing,” Lee said during a brief appearance before reporters Thursday.
But he provided little clarity on what had led the 6,825-ton Sewol to lean so far to its side before sinking, and why so many aboard had been unable to escape.
For some maritime experts, the captain’s decision to abandon ship and the crew’s emergency performance seemed to echo problems in the wreck of the Costa Concordia, an Italian cruise ship that ran aground in 2012, killing 32 people.
James T. Shirley Jr., an accident investigator in Newtown, Pa., said that in the 2
“I don’t understand why the crew would be instructing passengers to stay inside the ship,” Shirley said. “I would think that if nothing else, they would be getting them outside with life jackets on so if it sank, they could at least get into the cold water with their jackets.”
For the 325 students from Danwon High School who made up the bulk of the passengers, it was a trip they had been eagerly awaiting, a last chance for fun before a grueling year of studying for South Korea’s university entrance exam. Soon after the ferry left port Tuesday night bound for the resort island of Jeju, they celebrated by launching fireworks from the deck.
According to survivors, the students were having a morning break after breakfast Wednesday, roaming through the floors and snapping pictures on the deck, when the ship began tilting.
When the situation became critical, survivors said, many students were still on the third floor, where the cafeteria and game rooms were.
“I don’t remember that there was any safety instruction before we boarded the ship,” said Kim Su-bin, 16, a Danwon student who survived by climbing out of the sinking ship and jumping into the water. “Life jackets were on the fourth floor where the sleeping cabins were, but those who were on the third floor at the time had no life jackets.”
Grainy video footage taken with a smartphone and sent to a relative showed frightened passengers huddled in the corner of a room as a voice on the ship’s intercom urged people to “stay inside and wait because the cabins are safer.” Gwon Ji-hyuck, 16, said he had heard that broadcast as well.
The communications officer, Kang, 32, said he and another crew member had been forced to make a quick decision. They thought that if passengers fled in a panicked rush, it could make matters worse, he said.