Crew members died saving kids

Last updated 20:26 22/04/2014

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As the ferry sank, some crew members gave their lifejackets 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 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.

The captain 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.  

The captain has been described as a coward, but passengers recall moments of quiet bravery from other crew members.

Passenger Koo Bon-hee, 36, said that 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.

Witnesses told Yonhap news agency that she told students that crew members must stay on the ship until everyone else leaves, and that she would follow them after helping passengers.  

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 off onto rescue boats.

He said he and his colleagues remained at sea trying to help until an official who appeared to be from the coast guard 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.  

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‘‘We did hard work, but no media are talking about that,’’ he said. ‘‘Instead, they say all crew members fled.’’

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 problem.  

‘‘The captain should have stayed there,’’ Oh said, ‘‘even if it meant his death.’’

HAUNTING DISTRESS CALLS 

The first distress call from the sinking ferry was made by a boy with a shaking voice, three minutes after the vessel made its fateful last turn.

He called the emergency 119 number which put him through to the fire service, which in turn forwarded him to the coastguard two minutes later.

That was followed by about 20 other calls from children on board the ship to the emergency number, a fire service officer said.

The boy who made the first call, with the family name of Choi, is among the missing.

His voice was shaking and sounded urgent, a fire officer told MBC TV. It took a while to identify the ship as the Sewol.

‘‘Save us! We’re on a ship and I think it’s sinking,’’ Yonhap news agency quoted him as saying.

The fire service official asked him to switch the phone to the captain, and the boy replied: ‘‘Do you mean teacher?"

The pronunciation of the words for ‘‘captain’’ and ‘‘teacher’’ is similar in Korean.

HARROWING DETAILS REVEALED IN COURT 

Four crew members appeared in court on Tuesday and were briefly questioned by reporters before being taken back into custody.

One unidentified second mate said they had tried to reach the lifeboats, but were unable to because of the tilt.

Only two of the vessel’s 46 lifeboats were deployed.

Two first mates, one second mate and the chief engineer stood with their heads lowered and it was impossible to tell who was speaking.

One said there had been a mistake as the boat made a turn. Another said there was an eventual order to abandon ship. He said the crew gathered on the bridge and tried to restore balance, but could not.

‘‘Maybe the steering gear was broken,’’ one said.

Media said the ship lost power for 36 seconds, which could have been a factor.

Public broadcaster KBS, quoting transcripts of the conversation between the crew and sea traffic control, the Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Centre, said the passengers were told repeatedly to stay put.

For half an hour, the crew on the third deck kept asking the bridge by walkie-talkie whether or not they should make the order to abandon ship, KBS said. No one answered.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived.

But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck — where they would have had a greater chance of survival — without telling them to abandon ship.

In a confused exchange between the sinking Sewol and maritime traffic control released by the government, the crew said the ship was listing to port.

‘‘Make passengers wear life jackets and get ready in case you need to abandon ship,’’ traffic control said.

The Sewol answered: ‘‘It’s difficult for the passengers to move now.’’

The cause of the disaster is not yet known, and only became murkier Tuesday, when a South Korean official said the ferry had not taken an unusually sharp turn shortly before the sinking, as had been initially believed.

The official declined to elaborate or give his name, but provided a map that showed both the hard 115-degree turn originally estimated and the more gradual path the restored data describes.

It remains unclear why the ship turned around shortly before it sank.

Lee was not on the bridge when the ship turned. Navigation was in the hands of a 26-year old third mate - who has been arrested - was in charge for the first time on that part of the journey, according to crew members.

Senior prosecutor Ahn Song-don said Monday the third mate has told investigators why she made the turn, but he would not reveal her answer, and more investigation is needed to determine whether the answer is accurate.

RESCUE OPERATION NOW RECOVERY OPERATION

Bodies are being identified visually, but family members have been providing DNA samples in case decomposition makes that impossible.

In Ansan, funerals were held for more than 10 of the teens today, and education officials were building a temporary memorial that they expected to complete by Wednesday.  

At the city education office, parents issued a letter pleading for more government help in the rescue, and condemning its response so far.

Emergency task force spokesman Koh Myung-seok said bodies have mostly been found on the third and fourth floor of the ferry, where many passengers seemed to have gathered.

Many students were also housed in cabins on the fourth floor, near the stern of the ship, Koh said.

-Agencies 

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