South Korean ferry sinking death toll exceeds 100 as criticism of crew mounts

Search and recovery vessels at the site where the ferry Sewol sank off Jindo Island in South Korea. Photograph: Yonhap/EPA The de...

Search and recovery vessels at the site where the ferry Sewol sank off Jindo Island in South Korea. Photograph: Yonhap/EPA
The death toll in the South Korean ferry disaster rose to more than 100 on Tuesday as the country’s president launched a scathing attack on the ship's crew, while the parents of hundreds of missing children conceded that the rescue operation had become a quest to simply recover and identify the dead as quickly as possible.
The number of confirmed dead stood at 104 almost a week after the Sewol, with 476 passenger on board, listed and sank in waters off the south-west coast of South Korea in what has become one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters.
With a further 198 people still missing – most of them teenagers who were on their way to the resort island of Jeju when disaster struck – the final death toll is expected to be much higher.
Evidence of confusion among officers on the bridge and the failure to rescue a single passenger after the ship began sinking has sparked anger among relatives of the missing and prompted a nationwide debate on maritime safety and the government’s ability to respond to disasters.
On Tuesday media published a transcript of communications between the Sewol and maritime traffic officials on Jeju revealing the full extent of the confusion that gripped the bridge in the first few minutes of the disaster.
In an apparent attempt to deflect criticism from the bungled official response, the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, described the actions of the captain, Lee Joon-seok, and senior crew members as tantamount to murder. Park accused them of committing “unforgiveable, murderous acts” by refusing to order an evacuation until the ship was listing so severely that most passengers were trapped.
"The actions of the captain and some crew members were utterly incomprehensible, unacceptable and tantamount to murder," South Korean media quoted Park as telling senior aides.
"My heart and the hearts of all South Koreans have been broken and filled with shock and anger.
"Above all the conduct of the captain and some crew members is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. It was like an act of murder that cannot and should not be tolerated.”
Park noted that the crew had told passengers to stay put "but they themselves became the first to escape, deserting their passengers. This is utterly unimaginable, legally and ethically.”
Hundreds of relatives of those still unaccounted for have continued to wait at the quayside in Jindo, an island near the accident site where divers have been bringing bodies ashore in two and threes for identification.

A woman shows her grief at Jindo port where relatives have been waiting while bodies are recovered from the sunken ferry Sewol.
A woman shows her grief at Jindo port where relatives have been waiting while bodies are recovered from the sunken ferry Sewol. Photograph: Kim Hong-ji/Reuters

The outpourings of grief have been matched by mounting anger at the actions of the ferry’s crew – three of whom, including Lee, have been arrested on charges that include allegedly abandoning the sinking vessel while more than 300 passengers remained on board. Only 174 were rescued in the initial phase of the accident.
They will have to explain why they were among the first to leave the ship, and why an evacuation order was issued only when it was already listing at a precarious angle.
Lee, 69, who was absent from the bridge when the accident occurred, said he had waited to issue an evacuation order because he was concerned that passengers would be swept away by strong currents had they jumped into the sea before rescue boats arrived.
Investigators are examining evidence that an inexperienced third mate executed a sharp turn just before the ferry started listing, as well as claims from survivors that the bridge did not issue an evacuation order.
South Korean media said the ferry’s first mate may have failed to relay Lee’s evacuation order to the passengers.
“The captain gave the order to abandon ship to the first mate as the ship was going down. The first mate had the duty to lead the passenger evacuation,” Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman aboard the Sewol, was quoted as saying by the Herald Business.
“The first mate was holding a mobile phone but I did not see him call other crew members or take action [to relay the order].”
Lee Byung-soo, a truck driver, was among those parents for whom the slim hope of good news quickly turned to despair.
"Stop sleeping!" he yelled as he hugged his son, Lee Seok-joon, whose body was among those to have been brought up from the wreck. "Why are you sleeping so much? Daddy will save you!"
With the chances of finding anyone alive five days after the accident practically nil, grief-stricken parents said they wanted divers to retrieve bodies as quickly as possible.
"At first I was just very sad, but now it's like an endless wait," said Woo Dong-suk, the uncle of one of 339 pupils and teachers from a high school near Seoul who were on their way to Jeju for a pre-exam trip excursion when the accident occurred last Wednesday morning.
"It's been too long already. The bodies must be decayed. The parents' only wish right now is to find them before they are badly decomposed."
Reports said the rescue operation would probably end on Thursday after parents gave their permission for the ship to be hoisted from the seabed if no one is found alive in the next two days.
The search effort involves more than 200 rescue boats, 35 aircraft, 13 fishing boats and more than 600 personnel, including navy and civilian divers.
Conditions in the area were good on Tuesday morning – but even in calm seas and weak currents, divers searching the third and fourth floor cabins of the ship, where most of the passengers are presumed to be, can only spend short periods under water.
"I cannot see anything in front ... and the current underwater is too fast," said Choi Jin-ho, a professional diver who searched the ferry on Monday. "Then your breathing gets faster and you start to panic.”
The divers are being helped by a remote-controlled camera unit that can stay underwater for two to three hours.


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