SEOUL/MOKPO, SOUTH KOREA – As the ferry sank, some crew members gave their life jackets to passengers. One refused to leave until she shepherded students off the ship, and was later found dead. Others worked from rescue boats to break windows with hammers and pull people trapped in cabins to safety.
Nearly a week after the sinking of the South Korean ferry, with rising outrage over a death count that could eventually top 300, the public verdict against the crew of the Sewol has been savage and quick. “Cowards!” social media users howled. “Unforgivable, murderous,” President Park Geun-hye said Monday of the captain and some crew.
Some fled the ferry, including the captain, but not all. At least seven of the 29 crew members are missing or dead, and several of those who survived stayed on or near the ship to help passengers.
“His last words were, ‘I’m on my way to save the kids,’” Ahn So-hyun told reporters of what her husband, missing crew member Yang Dae-hong, told her by cellphone as the ship began to sink on Wednesday. He was referring to the 323 high school students on the ferry, which was carrying a total of 476 people.
More than 100 people are confirmed dead and nearly 200 more are still missing. Relatives, as well as many other South Koreans, are enraged, lashing out at what they see as a botched rescue operation and, most vehemently, at the captain. He and two crew members have been arrested, accused of negligence and abandoning people in need. Six other crew members have been detained — two of them on Tuesday — though prosecutors have yet to obtain arrest warrants for them.
Capt. Lee Joon-seok told passengers to stay in their cabins as the ferry listed and filled with water, then took at least half an hour to order an evacuation and apparently escaped on one of the first rescue boats.
It was one of the children who first raised the alarm, a fire station officer said. That call was followed by about 20 others, all from children, and transferred to the coast guard.
But passengers recall moments of quiet bravery from the crew.
Koo Bon-hee, 36, said there were not enough life jackets for everyone in the area on the third floor where he and others waited. So crew members — two men and two women — didn’t wear any so that all the passengers could have one.One of the first bodies recovered after the ferry sank was 22-year-old crew member Park Ji-young, who helped students evacuate until the last minute, even though she wasn’t wearing a life vest, South Korean media reported. She told students that crew members must stay on the ship until everyone else leaves, witnesses told the Yonhap news agency.
Crew members describe a rending dilemma as the ship went down. The late evacuation order meant that by the time the crew got off the bridge, the tilt of the ship was so great they could barely walk, let alone rescue passengers. Should they flee the sinking ship or risk their lives to save others trapped below?
Oh Yong-seok, a 57-year-old helmsman, said he and four crew members worked from nearby boats to smash windows on the sinking ferry, dragging six passengers stuck in cabins to safety.
Oh said that a first mate — who is detained — used his knowledge of the ship’s layout to help direct rescuers as they worked to pull passengers onto rescue boats. He said he and his colleagues remained at sea trying to help until an official asked them to head to land.
His eyes welling with tears, Oh said it breaks his heart to watch news of rescue attempts from a hospital room, where he’s being treated for an injury to his foot. He’s tormented over the likely deaths of children who are about the same age as his own.
“We did hard work, but no media are talking about that,” he said. “Instead, they say all crew members fled.”
Yang, the missing crew member, was dedicated to his job, said friend Lee Joung-hwa, a celebrity manager who met Yang six years ago on the ferry during an event she had organized there.
“He was the type of guy who cared for the customers of the ferries from the moment they stepped on board,” Lee said in an interview at the gymnasium in Jindo. She traveled there out of concern for her friend.
Some crew members said they feel they cannot discuss their efforts to help because the public is so enraged.
One crew member under investigation, an engineer, locked himself in a hotel room in Mokpo late Sunday night after telling fellow crew members that he would kill himself, senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said. Police found a rope when they entered the room, but the engineer appeared to be unhurt, Ahn said.
The engineer was among the two crew members detained Tuesday, prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said. He had been held by the coast guard on Monday, but Ahn said then it was for his own safety.
Crew members are also struggling to understand why the captain, who some called kindhearted, didn’t stay on the ship longer or help oversee rescue operations.
Oh said the captain tripped while the ship was listing and crashed into an iron door. Oh said he thought Lee might have left the ferry when he did because he was badly injured. He was surprised then to see in television footage that the captain was walking without much of a problem.
“The captain should have stayed there,” Oh said, “even if it meant his death.”