Ferry sinking death toll expected to shoot up
An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank off South Korea's southern coast,
likely with about 290 people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list, a crew member said Thursday.
The first instructions from the captain were for the passengers to put on life jackets and stay put, and it was not until about 30 minutes later that he ordered an evacuation, Oh Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member told The Associated Press.
The loss of that precious half-hour may have deprived many passengers of the opportunity to escape as The Sewol sank on Wednesday, not too far from the southern city of Mokpo. Nine people, including five students and two teachers, were confirmed dead, but the toll was expected to jump amid fears that the missing 287 passengers — many high school students — were dead.
The increasingly anxious search for the missing was hampered Thursday by strong currents, rain and bad visibility.
There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students on a school trip to the tourist island of Jeju in the south of the country. The ferry had traveled overnight from Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea, and was three hours short of its destination when the ship began to list. The cause is not yet known.
The Sewol now sits — with just part of its keel visible — in waters a little north of Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland and about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul.
After the captain's initial announcement, officers tried desperately to set the listing ship right while one crew member phoned in a distress call to the shore from his mobile phone. When the maneuvers did not work, the captain decided the passengers should evacuate, Oh said. But by then it was impossible for crew members to move to passengers' room to help them because the ship was tilted at an impossibly acute angle.