April 20, 2014 -- Chaos and confusion plagued communications between marine traffic control and the crew aboard a South Korean ferry, as the boat began tilting dangerously before capsizing, a radio transcript released today showed.
The radio recording revealed a lack of direction and indecision on both ends, which ultimately could have added to the delay of the evacuation of hundreds aboard the Sewol and contributed to the rising death toll, which could reach as many as 300 people.
In the transcripts, released by the South Korean Coast Guard, 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."
The confirmed death toll from Wednesday's tragedy has now reached 58, while many more of the 476 passengers on board remain missing and are feared dead. Among them were 325 students from Danwon High School who were on a field trip. At least 179 have survived.
Officials have not confirmed what exactly caused the boat to sink, although investigators are looking into the sharp turn the boat took before it began listing.
On Saturday, the captain of the boat, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested alongside two crew members for allegedly abandoning ship and negligence. Lee was not on the bridge at the critical time the boat turned, and left his third mate, who had only a little more than a year of experience, to steer.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.