JINDO, South Korea, April 20 (Xinhua) -- Last-minute communications between a sunken South Korean ferry and a vessel traffic center were disclosed Sunday by the pan-government emergency management headquarters.
Full communication logs between the "Sewol" ferry and Jindo vessel traffic service (VTS) showed many passengers may have lost chances to escape from the ship because of the captain's misjudgment.
After sending a distress signal to Jeju VTS at 8:55 a.m. local time Wednesday, the ferry had kept communications with the Jindo VTS more than 10 times from 9:07 a.m. to 9:38 a.m.
The 6,825-ton passenger ship departed South Korea's western port city of Incheon Tuesday night for the southern resort island of Jeju, carrying 476 people that included 325 high school students and 15 teachers on their way for a four-day field trip.
At 9:07 a.m., the Jindo VTS contacted the ferry for the first time, asking whether the ship was sinking. The Jindo VTS already knew about the fact due to an earlier SOS dispatch to Jeju VTS. The Jindo traffic center at once asked nearby boats to rush to the scene and help passengers leave the vessel.
At 9:12 a.m., the Jindo VTS asked whether passengers were riding on life boats. In response, the Sewol said the ship tilted so heavily that passengers were unable to move.
Two minutes later, an estimated fishing boat, which first arrived at the scene, told the Jindo VTS that some life boats were escaping from the ferry, but the Sewol said it was impossible for passengers to leave the vessel.
At 9:17 a.m., the Sewol said the ferry was leaning at 50 degrees left to the waters, under which passengers cannot move. Someone from the Sewol, believed to be the ship's captain, said he ordered sailors to wait dressed in life jackets but was unable to guarantee it. Sailors who gathered on the bridge were prevented from moving, he said.
During the half-hour pressing dialogue, the communicator never mentioned passengers who had been ordered to stay where they were via loudspeakers.
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 69, was arrested Saturday for five charges including negligence of duty and abandonment resulting in death. He ordered passengers to stay put while he and other crew members were leaving the sinking ferry. The captain was among the first to abandon the vessel.
Asked why he issued such an order, Lee said it was a safety measure to prevent them from being swept away. The area where the ship capsized and sank is swept by one of the country's strongest currents, and water temperatures are low, he said with his head huddled into a hoodie at the brief press conference after being questioned by prosecutors.
The captain said no rescue ships arrived at that time, but it turned out untrue as a fishing boat arrived at 9:14 a.m., according to the communication logs.
From 9:21 to 9:22 a.m., the Sewol repeatedly asked whether coast guard ships arrived at the scene. In response, the Jindo VTS urged the Sewol to let passengers wear life jackets, but the Sewol said broadcasting within the ship was not working.
The traffic center said that though the broadcasting did not work, he should go out and order crew members to let passengers wear life jackets as much as possible, but he just repeatedly asked whether the passengers would be plucked out of the waters if they leave the vessel.
At 9:28 a.m., the Sewol said helicopters seemed unable to rescue passengers as there were too many passengers when he heard from the Jindo VTS that helicopters were about to arrive there.
The captain wasn't at the helm when the ship was sinking and he handed over the wheel to the third mate, 25, who steered the ship in the rough waters for the first time. She had six months of experience for the Incheon-Jeju route.
Lee confirmed he was not at the wheel when the ship ran into trouble, saying that he was returning to the bridge from his cabin.
Two sailors, including the third-ranking officer and the helmsman, were also arrested for similar charges with Lee.
Prosecutors applied the additional law on specific crimes to the three crew members as they gave up the ship without making efforts to evacuate passengers first.
The Sewol ferry capsized and sank off Jindo Island, near the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula, on Wednesday morning.
The ferry disaster was believed to have been caused by a sudden turn in direction. The ship made an abrupt turn at about 8: 48 a.m. local time Wednesday. The second turn was suddenly made four minutes later.
After sending the distress signal, the ferry remained afloat for some two and a half hours with its body tilting.
The abrupt turn was estimated to have moved some 180 cars and trucks and over 1,100 tons of cargo on the deck of the ship to one side, driving the ship to lean to the port side gradually.
The ferry's regular captain who had been on leave was replaced by the arrested captain, who the ship's operator Chonghaejin Marine said is a veteran with eight years of experience on the Incheon-Jeju Island route.
Prosecutors searched the operator's headquarters, seizing documents and records.
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