Skip to main content

South Korean ferry rescuers: So many lives could have been saved

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Mon April 28, 2014
  • Doola Ace reached stricken ferry just minutes after receiving the first distress call
  • Rescue ship's captain saw few signs of an evacuation
  • Ferry's crew looked for early escape
  • Captain haunted by day's events and the needless loss of human life

(CNN) -- When they arrived on the scene, Captain Moon Ye-shik expected to see hundreds of passengers in the water. But all he saw were containers.

"The ship was listing (badly), 30 to 40 degrees," he recalls. "It was in such a bad condition, anyone would assume evacuation was well underway."

The Doola Ace was the first vessel to reach the Sewol, the ill-fated South Korean ferry that first started to sink in the early hours of April 16. Upon arriving at the scene just minutes after receiving a distress call, it didn't take Moon and his crew long to react.

Authorities investigating ferry company
South Korean ferry company's safety issues
Divers: There are no air pockets left

First responders

Around 9:15 am, twenty minutes after the first SOS, Moon and his men were 200 meters from the Sewol, on deck ready to deploy life rafts and life rings.

But despite the alarming angle that the ferry had already attained, there were few signs that a full-fledged evacuation was underway.

What they didn't know was the passengers, including the 325 students from Danwon High School on a field trip, had been told by the ferry's crew to stay put. While the ferry continued its inexorable descent into the cold waters of the Yellow Sea, those on board trusted in the orders of their crew.

"Please do not move from your location," the ferry's loudspeakers, which swiftly began taking on water after running into trouble, barked at those on board. "Absolutely do not move."

Radio contact

Moon spoke directly to the Sewol on the radio, telling an unidentified crew member that his men were ready to assist in an immediate rescue, and urged the contact to tell the passengers to escape.

A full ten minutes later the Sewol was still asking -- "if we escape, can they be rescued?"

Steeped in regret for what he clearly sees as a needless waste of life, the captain wonders what would have happened if the other ship's crew had followed protocol.

"Maybe they were waiting for a different rescue boat, but in that situation, you don't wait," says Moon. "They should have made the call for evacuation. So many lives would have been saved."

Panicked crew

Moon says the crew member on the radio sounded like he was panicking and was clearly inexperienced. "In an emergency, it should be the captain on the radio. You need to make decisions fast. Or at least someone with experience to give direction."

Moon's voice hardens when he talks about the Sewol captain escaping. Discussing the actions of the man who was arrested for his part in the chaotic scenes that followed the delayed evacuation order, he becomes visibly angry.

The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-seok, was been charged with abandoning his boat, negligence, causing bodily injury, not seeking rescue from other ships, and violating "seamen's law," state media reported, citing prosecutors and police.

"It is an issue of ethics," Moon says. "It is a given that there are laws and regulations, but it's common sense that (the crew) should help people escape."

The captain shakes his head, and says that he believes the Sewol captain has sullied the name of all Korean captains. He says this is the last time he will speak of this tragedy, hoping if he doesn't talk about it his nightmares about not being able to save the children will ease.

READ: 'We're tilting': Cell phone video on ferry captures uncertainty on board

READ: 3 arrested, accused of destroying evidence in S. Korea ferry probe

READ: South Korean prime minister resigns over ferry disaster response

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
South Korean forensics officials say they are sure the body found in a field last month is Yoo Byung Eun.
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
The trial of the captain and crew began, with the accused facing the families of the victims.
updated 10:52 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
South Korea's most wanted man, who is believed to have ties to the company that operated the ill-fated Sewol ferry, has eluded arrest for weeks.
updated 3:09 PM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
South Korea's President apologized for a ferry disaster that killed close to 300 people and said she would dismantle the country's coast guard.
updated 11:23 PM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
Here are 7 major factors that contributed to the ship's sinking.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Wed April 30, 2014
The words and images from the cell phone of a girl who perished on the South Korean ferry convey the rising panic aboard.
updated 1:56 AM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
In one video, the captain of the sinking South Korean ferry scrambles to safety. In another, stranded passengers panic.
updated 10:56 AM EDT, Sun April 27, 2014
As the death toll from the ferry disaster continues to rise, yellow ribbons have evolved into a national sign of grief.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Sun April 27, 2014
Choi Duk-Ha, 17, is credited for saving the lives of many on the ferry. He later died and is now hailed as a hero.
updated 3:31 PM EDT, Mon April 28, 2014
CNN's Nic Robertson reports on the rising anger as South Koreans learn more about the final moments of the doomed vessel.
updated 11:14 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
CNN's Erin Burnett talks to Ship stability expert Paul Roden about whether the cargo lead to the ferry disaster.
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Fri April 25, 2014
South Korea is not only a nation in mourning, but also a country overwhelmed with guilt. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Park Jee Young, 22, helped passengers escape and distributed life jackets as the stricken ferry began to sink, refusing to wear one herself. It cost her life.
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Such bravery has been conspicuously absent from two major maritime disasters in recent times.
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
South Korean students remember their vice principal, who took his own life after the ferry sinking.
updated 3:30 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
The captain of the sunken South Korean ferry is defending his actions as rescuers continue the search for survivors.
updated 10:01 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
CNN's Kyung Lah reports on suicide in South Korea following news of a capsized ferry.