A half-hour delay in evacuation orders may have trapped hundreds on board the doomed South Korea ferry, according to new details which emerged Friday about how the disaster unfolded.
A transcript of a ship-to-shore exchange, and interviews with surviving crew members, reveal that the vessel was listing too heavily for passengers to escape by the time the captain issued orders to abandon ship.
As the confirmed death toll from Wednesday’s sinking rose to 28, hopes were fading for 268 passengers – including dozens of high school students - missing feared drowned. Officials said there were 179 survivors.
Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry with 10 years of shipping experience, told The Associated Press that when the crew gathered on the bridge and sent a distress call, the ship was already listing more than five degrees, the critical angle at which a vessel can be brought back to even keel.
The first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were, Oh said. A third mate reported that the ship could not be righted, and the captain ordered another attempt, which also failed, Oh said.
A crew member then tried to reach a lifeboat but fell because the vessel was tilting, prompting the first mate to suggest to the captain that he order an evacuation, Oh said.
About 30 minutes after passengers were told to stay in place, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn't sure in the confusion and chaos on the bridge if the order was relayed to the passengers.
"We couldn't even move one step. The slope was too big," said Oh, who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain.
An unidentified shipping official who received the vessel’s radio distress call ordered the crew to put on life jackets and prepare for evacuation, the AP reported.That order came five minutes after the distress call.
However, a crew member replied over the radio that "it's hard for people to move."
That echoed reports from students on board who texted loved ones as the ship began to sink.
“Dad, the ferry has tilted too much. I cannot walk, there’s too many of us in the corridor and it’s too tilted,” 16-year-old Kim Woong-Ki wrote in a text to her father. “It’s dangerous if I move,” she said. It was the last communication from Kim, who is among the missing.
The transcript also shows that several minutes were spent communicating the extent of the ship's predicament to marine traffic officials.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.