JINDO, South Korea: The actions of the captain and crew of a capsized South Korean ferry were “tantamount to murder,” President Park Guen-Hye said on Monday, condemning their “unimaginable” decision to escape while hundreds were still trapped in the sinking vessel.
Park’s denunciation, in which she vowed to hold all those responsible for the disaster “criminally accountable,” followed the release of a transcript showing the panic and indecision that paralyzed decision-making on the bridge as the 6,825-ton Sewol listed and capsized on Wednesday morning.
The confirmed death toll stood at 64 but was expected to rise dramatically with 238 people still unaccounted for.
“The actions of the captain and some crew members were utterly incomprehensible, unacceptable and tantamount to murder,” the presidential Blue House quoted Park as saying in a meeting with senior aides.
“Not only my heart, but the hearts of all South Koreans have been broken and filled with shock and anger,” said Park, who had been heckled on Thursday when she met relatives of the hundreds of passengers still missing — most of them schoolchildren.
The families have criticized the official response to the disaster, saying the initial rescue effort was inadequate and mismanaged.
The president said it was increasingly clear that Captain Lee Joon-Seok had unnecessarily delayed the evacuation of passengers as the ferry started sinking, and then “deserted them” by escaping with most of his crew members.
“This is utterly unimaginable, legally and ethically,” she said.
Lee was arrested on Saturday along with a helmsman and the ship’s relatively inexperienced third officer, who was in charge of the bridge when the ship first ran into trouble.
A transcript released on Sunday of the final radio communications between the Sewol and marine transport control underlined the confusion that reined as the vessel listed sharply to one side after making a distress call.
Marine control ordered the crew to ensure all passengers were wearing life jackets, while the ship repeatedly questioned whether vessels were on hand to rescue people once they started to abandon ship.
“Make them wear a life ring at least and let them float. Now!” the control official insisted.
In the end, the evacuation order was only given around 40 minutes after the ship ran into trouble, by which time it was listing so heavily that escape was almost impossible.
“Precious minutes just wasted,” was the front page verdict of the Dong-A Ilbo daily on Monday.
At the time of his arrest, Lee insisted he had acted in the passengers’ best interest, delaying the order to abandon ship because he feared people would be swept away and drowned before rescue boats arrived.
Realistic hopes of finding survivors have disappeared, but families of the missing are still opposed to the use of heavy cranes to lift the ship before divers have searched every section.
It took divers more than two days to access the submerged ferry and the first bodies from inside the vessel were only recovered on Sunday.
Divers to focus on cabins
Coastguard officials said 24 had since been pulled out, but hundreds more are likely trapped inside.
“We believe there are many people on the third and fourth decks where cabins were located, so we will focus on these areas,” a coastguard spokesman told reporters.
“We have also opened a route leading to a dining hall, and will try to enter that area,” he said.
Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 352 were high school students headed for the holiday island of Jeju.
South Koreans have been stunned by the tragedy, which looks set to become one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters and has unleashed a sense of profound national grief.
The weeping of devastated family members could be heard across the harbor on Jindo island as boats brought the most recently recovered bodies in from the nearby rescue site on Monday morning.
Wrapped in white cloth, each body was gently lifted off the boats and placed on a stretcher which was then carried away by six uniformed police wearing surgical face masks.
In a nearby tent, they were placed on white tables and prepared as best as possible for the grieving relatives to make a visual identification.
The families have bitterly criticized the official response to the disaster, saying delays in accessing the submerged ship may have robbed any survivors of their last chance to make it out alive.
Since bodies began being pulled from the ship, they have also attacked the pace of the recovery effort, insisting the bodies should be removed faster while they are still recognizable.