JEJU ISLAND, South Korea April 21, 2014 -- Prosecutors are considering charges of accidental homicide against the captain, third mate and helmsman of last week’s doomed South Korean ferry, with new details revealing the frantic and confused ship-to-shore radio communications as critical minutes passed.
At least 80 people are confirmed dead in the tragedy, with 222 others still missing.
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and waited more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order as the ferry sank. By then the ship had tilted so much it is believed that many of the missing could not escape.
Video showed that Lee was among the first people rescued. Some of his crew said he had been hurt, but a doctor who treated him said he had only light injuries.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye said today that the captain and some crew members of the sunken ferry committed "unforgivable, murderous behavior" by telling the passengers to stay put while giving themselves opportunities to escape.
"Legally and ethically, this is an unimaginable act,” she said.
The captain and two crew members – third mate Park Han-gyeol and an unnamed helmsman – have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, and prosecutors said Monday that four other crew members have been detained. Senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said prosecutors would decide within 48 hours whether to seek arrest warrants for the four: two first mates, a second mate and a chief engineer.
Park is a relative rookie shipmate with just over a year of experience. The captain reportedly left her in charge on a tricky route while he took a break.
Lee has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived. But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck – where they would have had a greater chance of survival – without telling them to abandon ship.
Transcripts released by the South Korean Coast Guard detail the frenzied, befuddling rescue efforts. A crew member of the ferry that sank Wednesday told Vessel Traffic Service at 9:14 a.m. the ship was "leaning too much, and evacuation is impossible."
But minutes later, as the boat continued to list to the left, the unidentified crew member asked three times in succession whether rescue would be immediately possible if they evacuated the ferry's passengers, which elicited jumbled responses from traffic control.
"If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?" the crew member asks.
"At least make them wear life rings and make them escape," the VTS official responded.
"If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?" the crew member posed again.
"Don't let them go bare -- at least make them wear life rings and make them escape," the VTS official said. "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?"
VTS then responds that a rescue helicopter is 10 minutes away, to which boat crew replied: "There are too many passengers. A helicopter would be insufficient."
Search crews have had trouble reaching the ferry, unable for days to enter the submerged ship because of strong currents, bad weather and low visibility. Oil could also be seen on the water’s surface, adding to the poor visibility. Over the weekend divers were able to use a new entryway through the dining hall, resulting in a jump in the discovery of corpses.
Relatives of the missing passengers continue to struggle with grief, waiting and waiting for news, overcome by the grim reality. On Jindo, relatives of the missing must search white signboards giving sparse details such as gender, height, hair length and clothing to see if their loved ones have been found.
No names are listed, just the slimmest of clues about mostly young lives now lost. Many favored hoodies and track pants. One girl painted her fingernails red and toenails black. Another had braces on her teeth.
"I'm afraid to even look at the white boards," said Lim Son-mi, 50, whose 16-year-old daughter, Park Hye-son, has not been found. "Because all the information is quite similar, whenever I look at it, my heart breaks."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.