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

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Story highlights

  • 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

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.

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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.

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