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South Korean President: Actions of sunken ferry crew 'akin to murder'

By Ralph Ellis, KJ Kwon and Greg Botelho, CNN
updated 11:22 PM EDT, Sun April 20, 2014
  • NEW: South Korean President says captain and crew's actions are "akin to murder"
  • At least 64 bodies have been found, the coast guard says
  • 238 people are still missing; 174 have been rescued
  • Official: Divers will try to reach the ship's cafeteria on Monday

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Jindo, South Korea (CNN) -- The actions of the captain and crew of the sunken ferry Sewol "are akin to murder," South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Monday.

Her comments come after a radio transcript released a day earlier suggested that passengers aboard the doomed South Korean ferry couldn't reach lifeboats to escape because the ship tilted so quickly that it left many of them unable to move.

"Please notify the coast guard. Our ship is in danger. The ship is rolling right now," a crew member on the ship first tells authorities in a dramatic conversation that took place while the Sewol ferry was sinking last week.

An unidentified crew member on the Sewol talked to two different Vessel Traffic Service centers as the ship sank Wednesday morning, the transcript revealed. Someone on the ship contacted the traffic service in Jeju -- the ferry's destination -- at 8:55 a.m. and communicated with it before the conversation switched to Jindo VTS, which was closer, about 11 minutes later.

"The ship rolled over a lot right now. Cannot move. Please come quickly," the crew member says a minute after initial contact.

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At one point Jeju advises the crew to get people into life vests.

"It is hard for people to move," Sewol replies.

After the conversation switches to the traffic service in Jindo, the Sewol crew member says several times that the ship is leaning too much for passengers to move.

Sewol: "Our ship is listing and may capsize."

Jindo VTS: "How are the passengers doing? ..."

Sewol: "It's too listed that they are not able to move."

A short time later, another exchange takes place:

Jindo VTS: "Are the passengers able to escape?"

Sewol: "The ship listed too much, so it is impossible."

The transcript may help answer one of the major questions about the capsizing: Why didn't more passengers escape on lifeboats?

Many missing, scores killed

At least 64 people have died in the sinking, and 238 are missing, the South Korean coast guard said Monday.

Search crews brought more than a dozen bodies to shore Sunday morning, a solemn process pierced by screams and cries from the passengers' families.

The wrenching scene came after four police boats arrived in rapid succession. The first carried four bodies. The second boat had three more. The third and fourth also carried three bodies each.

Each body was taken onto a stretcher on the dock in Jindo, draped in cloth. After an inspection, they were carried along a path guarded by police -- who were also shedding tears -- and past grieving family members.

Some relatives refused to accept the outcome.

"Wake up! Wake up, please!" one man screamed.

S. Korea ferry captain defends actions
Outrage grows after ferry sinks
Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300. Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300.
South Korean ferry sinks
Photos: South Korean ferry sinks Photos: South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry rescue operation  South Korean ferry rescue operation
South Korean ferry rescue operationSouth Korean ferry rescue operation

With hundreds of people still missing, the heartbreaking scene will likely play out over and over again.

Although 174 people were rescued shortly after the vessel sank Wednesday, no survivors have been found since.

Nonetheless, more than 100 divers continued plunging into the frigid Yellow Sea Sunday. And 35 aircraft and 214 ships aided in the search, Joint Task Force spokesman Park Seung-gi told reporters.

At around noon on Monday (11 p.m. ET Sunday), divers will try to enter the ship's cafeteria, where authorities believe most students were when the ship started to sink, he said.

One diver described his experience to CNN affiliate JTBC. Teams have been focusing on the third and fourth floors of the ship, where investigators believe many of the missing might be.

"It's hard to say exactly where you are once you enter the ferry, since it is completely dark and you basically have to feel your way around based only on the blueprint of the ferry," diving team leader Hwang Dae Sik said. "So it is hard to say definitively in what compartment you are searching and what your are discovering."

As they wait, relatives of the missing have been asked to submit DNA samples.

Park on Sunday declared the cities of Ansan and Jindo as special disaster zones eligible for national disaster assistance programs, in order to facilitate central government help, a spokesman for the Joint Task Force Headquarters said in a news release.

Ship's captain defends evacuation

According to the transcript, Jindo Vessel Traffic Service urged the captain to take charge.

Jindo VTS: "The captain should make (the) decision to make people escape. We do not know the situation so captain make final decision on passengers' escape."

The captain has defended his order to delay the evacuation of the ferry.

"It is a fairly fast current area, and the water temperature was cold," Capt. Lee Joon Seok said, according to CNN affiliate YTN.

"I thought that abandoning the ship without discretion would make you drift off a fairly far distance and cause a lot of trouble. At the same time, the rescue ship did not come, and there were no fishing boats or supporting ships around to help at that time."

The captain has been charged with abandoning his boat, negligence, causing bodily injury, not seeking rescue from other ships and violating "seamen's law," state media reported.

Prosecutor Lee Bong-chang gave more details about the accusations against the captain.

"Mr. Lee is charged with causing the Sewol ship to sink by failing to slow down while sailing the narrow route and making (a) turn excessively," the prosecutor told the semiofficial Yonhap news agency.

"Lee is also charged with failing to do the right thing to guide the passengers to escape and thereby leading to their death or injury."

If convicted, the captain faces from five years to life in prison.

The captain wasn't at the helm of the Sewol when it started to sink, the prosecutor said. A third mate was at the helm.

So where was the captain?

The captain was not in the steering room when the accident took place, according to police and his own account.

He said he plotted the ship's course, and then went to his cabin briefly "to tend to something." It was then, the captain said, that the accident happened.

A crew member, described as the third mate and identified only as Park, appeared in handcuffs with Lee.

The third mate said she did not make a sharp turn, but "the steering turned much more than usual."

Park is facing charges including negligence and causing injuries leading to deaths, said Yang Joong-jin, a maritime police spokesman.

A technician with the surname Cho is also facing the same charges, he said.

The captain was one those rescued soon after the Sewol began to sink, violating an "internationally recognized rule that a captain must stay on the vessel," maritime law attorney Jack Hickey said.

"Pretty much every law, rule, regulation and standard throughout the world says that yes, the captain must stay with the ship until all personnel are safely off of the ship, certainly passengers."

Families protest over rescue operation

Murky waters cloud the horror facing ferry rescue divers

CNN's KJ Kwon reported from Jindo; Ralph Ellis and Greg Botelho wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Tim Schwarz, Holly Yan, Judy Kwon, Chelsea J. Carter, Stella Kim and Jung-eun Kim contributed to this report.

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