JINDO, SOUTH KOREA – The captain of the ferry that sank off South Korea’s southwestern tip, with hundreds feared dead, said in a promotional video four years ago that the journey was safe — as long as passengers followed the instructions of the crew.
The irony is the crew ordered the passengers, mostly high school children, to stay put in their cabins as the ferry sank last Wednesday. As is customary in hierarchical South Korean society, the orders were not questioned.
Many of those who escaped alive either did not hear or flouted the instructions and were rescued as they jumped off the deck.
Sixty-four people are known to have died and 238 are missing, presumed dead in the upturned hull of the stricken Sewol ferry. Capt. Lee Joon-seok, 69, and other crew members have been arrested.
Of the 476 passengers and crew members on board, 339 were children and teachers on a high school outing.
Lee made a promotional video in 2010 in which he highlighted the safety of the journey from the port city of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju.
“Passengers who take our ship to and from Incheon and Jeju can enjoy a safe and pleasant trip, and I believe it is safer than any other vehicle as long as they follow the instructions of our crew members,” he said in transcripts broadcast by regional cable station OBS.
Parents of the children missing in the accident, which is likely to turn out to be one of South Korea’s worst maritime disasters, sat exhausted from days of grief on Monday, waiting for the almost-inevitable news that their loved ones had died.
The have spent all their time since the accident in a gymnasium in the port city of Jindo, taking it in turns to vent their anger at the crew’s inaction and slow pace of the rescue operation.
One of those waiting in the gymnasium is Kim Chang-gu, whose son Kim Dong-hyup is among the missing.
“I dream about him and hear hallucinatory sounds,” he said. “Somebody told me he was alive but I now have given up. I know how he said ‘Dad.’ I keep hearing that.”
Divers are retrieving the bodies at a faster pace, and some parents have moved from the gymnasium to the pier to await news.
Others stay put on their mattresses in the gym, where one by one, parents are informed that a body matches the family DNA swab, prompting wailing and collapses as others look on in silence.
Kim Chang-gu, father of one of the missing, said parents no longer trusted the news or government or even each other. They even fight each other when things get tense.
Now that a few days have passed, the general mood at the gym is people are tired of waiting.
Two U.S. underwater drones have been deployed in the search for bodies, a coast guard official said. Strong tides hampered operations overnight but the weather outlook was better for Monday.
A clearer picture has started to emerge of the time around the accident after coast guards released a recording of a conversation between vessel controllers and the ship.
Witnesses have said the Sewol turned sharply before it began listing. It is still not clear why the vessel turned.
It took more than two hours for it to capsize completely, but passengers were ordered to stay put in their cabins.
According to the transcript, at 9:25 a.m. the controllers told the captain to “decide how best to evacuate the passengers” and that he should “make the final decision on whether or not to evacuate.”
Lee was not on the bridge when the ship turned. Navigation was in the hands of a 26-year-old third mate who was in charge for the first time in the passage, according to crew members.
The transcript shows crew members on the ship worried there were not enough rescue boats at the scene to take on all the passengers. Witnesses said the captain and some crew members took to rescue boats before the passengers.
Lee said earlier he feared that passengers would be swept away by the ferocious currents if they leaped into the sea. He has not explained why he left the vessel.
Pupils at the children’s school in Ansan, a gritty commuter town on the outskirts of Seoul, set up shrines to the dead and posted messages for the missing.
The vice principal of the school, who was on the ferry and survived the accident, hanged himself outside the gymnasium in Jindo in another blow to the school. His body was discovered by police on Friday.
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