Confused, chaotic scene described on sinking ferry

Associated Press Published:

MOKPO, South Korea -- There was chaos and confusion on the bridge of a sinking ferry, with the captain first trying to stabilize the listing vessel before ordering its evacuation, a crewman said Thursday.

By the time the order came, however, he said it had become impossible to help many of the passengers -- although the captain and a dozen crew members survived.

The confirmed death toll from Wednesday's sinking of the Sawol off southern South Korea was 25, the coast guard said. But the number was expected to rise with about 270 people missing, many of them high school students on a class trip. Officials said there were 179 survivors.

The 480-foot Sewol had left Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea on Tuesday for the overnight journey to the southern resort island of Jeju. There were 475 people aboard.

It was three hours from its destination Wednesday morning when it began to list for an unknown reason.

The first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets. About 30 minutes after passengers were told to stay in place, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate.

By then, it was impossible for crew members to move to passengers' rooms to help them because the ship was tilted at an impossibly acute angle.

ee, he said. The delay in evacuation also likely prevented lifeboats from being deployed.

"We couldn't even move one step. The slope was too big," said Oh, who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain.

It is not clear if the captain's actions violated any procedures, and he may have believed at the time that it was still possible to control the vessel, which would have made the order to evacuate unnecessary.

Passenger Koo Bon-hee told the AP that many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break. He wanted to escape earlier but didn't because of the announcement to stay put.

"The rescue wasn't done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time," the 36-year-old Koo said from a hospital bed in Mokpo where he was treated for minor injuries. "If people had jumped into the water ... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out."

In Mokpo, relatives of the dead students wailed and sobbed as ambulances began carrying the recovered bodies back to Ansan. The families, who spent a mostly sleepless night at the hospital, followed the ambulances in their cars.

The family of one of the dead, 24-year-old teacher Choi Hye-jung, described her as a woman who loved to boast about her students who came to her office to give her hugs.

"She was very active and wanted to be a good leader," her father, Choi Jae-kyu, 53, said at Mokpo Jung-Ang Hospital while waiting for the arrival of his daughter's body. Choi's mother, sitting on a bench at the hospital, sobbed quietly with her head on her knee.

The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.

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Klug reported from Seoul. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Ansan and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.

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