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Transcript reveals chaos, uncertainty during S. Korea ferry disaster

Leader calls actions of crew murderous

Relatives of those on board the sunken ferry Sewol looked at the names of recovered victims in Jindo, South Korea.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Relatives of those on board the sunken ferry Sewol looked at the names of recovered victims in Jindo, South Korea.

JINDO, South Korea — The South Korean ferry that sank was crippled by confusion and indecision well after it began listing, a radio transcript released Sunday showed, suggesting the chaotic situation may have added to a death toll that could exceed 300.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that more bodies were recovered Monday near the sunken ship, bringing the official death toll to 64.

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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 declared that it was ‘‘impossible to broadcast’’ instructions.

Many people followed the captain’s initial order to stay below deck, where it is feared they remain trapped. About 240 people are still missing.

‘‘Even if it’s impossible to broadcast, please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing,’’ an unidentified official at Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center urged at 9:24 a.m. Wednesday, 29 minutes after the ferry first reported trouble, according to the transcript released by South Korea’s coast guard.

‘‘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.

After repeated questioning from the crew member, the traffic official 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 ferry sank with 476 people on board, many of them students from a single high school. The cause of the disaster is not yet known, but prosecutors have said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list.

Several crew members, including the captain, have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning passengers.

On Monday, South Korea’s president, Park Geun Hye, said the captain and some crew members of the sunken ferry committed “unforgivable, murderous acts” in the disaster.

The captain and crew ‘‘told the passengers to stay put but they themselves became the first to escape, after deserting the passengers,’’ Park said. She said that ‘‘legally and ethically, this is an unimaginable act.’’

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 island of Jeju.

The captain took more than a half-hour to issue an evacuation order, which several passengers have said they never heard.

The confirmed death toll jumped over the weekend after divers finally found a way inside the sunken vessel and quickly discovered more than a dozen bodies.

They had been hampered for days by strong currents, bad weather, and low visibility.

Families of the missing are staying on Jindo Island, where information sheets taped to the walls of a gymnasium offered details to help identify any corpses, including gender, height, length of hair and clothing.

It was too little for Lee Joung-hwa, a friend of a crew member who is among the missing.

‘‘If only they could have made some kind of image of the person’s face. Who can tell who this person is just by height and weight?’’ Lee said.

A woman with a blue baseball cap shouted at government officials who were seated nearby, working at their desks. ‘‘I can’t live like this! I’m so anxious!’’ she yelled. ‘‘How can I trust the police?’’

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 Park.

They walked for about six hours before police officers in neon jackets blocked a main road.

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