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South Korea Ferry Disaster

Transcripts Show Confusion and Inaction as Korean Ferry Sank

Image: South Korea ferry sinking

South Korean Coast Guard members conduct a search and rescue operation for the missing passengers of the Sewol ferry sinking at the accident site about 20 kms off Jindo-port on Jindo Island, in the southwestern province of South Jeolla, South Korea, 20 April 2014. JEON HEON-KYUN / EPA

The confirmed death toll from the ferry that sunk off the coast of South Korea rose to 58 on Sunday — as a newly released transcript shows the confusion that ensued in the half hour between the first distress call and the evacuation of the ship.

The transcript shows that a crew member repeatedly asked Vessel Traffic Services Center (VTS), in Jindo, South Korea, whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned the sinking ferry Sewol.

But that followed several statements from the ship that it was impossible for people aboard to even move, and another in which it said it was "impossible to broadcast" instructions.

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"Even if it's impossible to broadcast, please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing," an unidentified VTS official urged at 9:24 a.m., 29 minutes after the Sewol first reported trouble, according to the transcript released by South Korea's coast guard.

"Don't let them go bare — at least make them wear life rings and make them escape," the VTS official says.

Many people followed the captain's initial order to stay below deck — and may still be trapped there underwater.

About 240 people are still missing, most of whom were students from one high school.

The 16- and 17-year-old students make up only 75 of the 174 known survivors, according to The Associated Press.

Crews had only confirmed 33 dead on Saturday, since they could not gain access to the inside of the ship because of bad weather, strong currents and murky waters. Once divers found a way inside the ship, they discovered more than a dozen bodies and several in the waters surrounding the doomed vessel.

Maritime experts say that the captain should have immediately started evacuating the boat once it started tilting, but even saying nothing at all would have been a better option, they said.

"If you would have not said a word to them, they would have left to the deck to see what was going on," and a crucial step in any evacuation would have been accomplished, Mario Vittone, a former U.S. Coast Guard maritime accident investigator and inspector, told the AP.

"Don't let them go bare — at least make them wear life rings and make them escape."

Thad Allen, the former head of the U.S. Coast Guard said it's natural for a captain to "keep trying to save the ship but mitigate the risk to loss of life by preparing the passengers to abandon ship."

"The minute you think the ship is in danger, you have to act to get passengers to the boats," Allen said.

The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, defended his choice, saying, "the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment ... they would drift away and face many other difficulties."

Lee was arrested Friday and faces charges of criminal negligence, abandoning the ship, causing bodily injury and not seeking rescue from other ships.

One of the ship's three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third mate were also arrested and another 30 to 40 people have been barred from leaving South Korea while authorities investigate disaster, senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said.

— with The Associated Press