‘Wake up, please!’: Death toll from South Korean ferry rises to 50

Updated 11:31 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
01:27 - Source: CNN
Agony for waiting South Korean families

Story highlights

NEW: The death toll climbs to 50, the South Korean coast guard says

NEW: 252 people are still missing, in addition to the 174 who were rescued

Capt. Lee Joon Seok defends his order to delay the evacuation of his sinking ferry

(CNN) —  

Boat after boat, body after body from a capsized South Korean ferry came ashore Sunday morning, a solemn process interrupted by piercing cries and screams from passengers’ kin.

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

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 themselves shed tears – and past even more outwardly emotional family members.

These relatives cried and, in some cases, yelled loudly, clearly overtaken by the moment.

Some of those shouts came from inside the identification tent.

One man yelled out, “Wake up! Wake up, please!”

The arrival of the 13 bodies corresponds with the South Korean coast guard’s announcement, a short time earlier, that the death toll had increased by that number, up to 50. But few expect it to stop there.

While 174 were rescued shortly after the vessel sunk Wednesday, there have been none saved since despite extensive, exhaustive searches by air, from ships and by divers plunging into the frigid waters and ideally inside the now completely submerged ship itself.

The number of those unaccounted for stood at 252 early Sunday.

Relatives of some of them gathered in Jindo – the nearest port to the wreckage some 12 miles (20 kilometers) away – were asked earlier in the weekend to submit DNA samples.

Ship’s captain defends evacuation

As divers and others scrambled to retrieve yet more bodies, details are trickling in about what happened the day the ferry capsized.

Capt. Lee Joon Seok defended his order to delay the evacuation of his sinking ferry, CNN affiliate YTN reported early Saturday.

Lee 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, citing prosecutors and police

He appeared before reporters in handcuffs.

“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,” prosecutor Lee Bong-chang 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, Lee faces from five years to life in prison.

A South Korean prosecutor said Lee wasn’t at the helm of the Sewol when it started to sink; a third mate was at the helm.

Where was captain?

The captain was not in the steering room when the accident occurred, according to police and his own account. He was in his cabin.

A crew member, described as the third mate, appeared with Lee and, like the captain, the third mate was in handcuffs. The man was identified only as Park.

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

South Korean ferry rescue operation
South Korean ferry rescue operation

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

As the captain left a court hearing early Saturday, police led him to reporters, where he answered questions.

“The tidal current was strong and water temperature was cold, and there was no rescue boat,” Lee told reporters, according to CNN affiliate YTN. “So I had everyone stand by and wait for the rescue boat to arrive.”

Lee acknowledged that he plotted the ship’s course, and then went to his cabin briefly “to tend to something.”

The third mate, who was at the helm of the ship when Lee left, said he did not make a sharp turn. Rather, he said, “the steering turned much more than usual.”

The captain was one of at least 174 people rescued soon after the Sewol began to sink, violating an “age-old rule and 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.”

Scores of ships on water, divers plunge below it

Hopes of finding the missing alive dimmed further when the entire boat became submerged Friday. Until then, part of the ship’s blue-and-white hull was still poking out of the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea.

The coast guard said workers continued to pump air into the hull of the submerged ship but could not stop its descent.

South Korean officials said Saturday they are sending in 176 ships, 28 aircraft and 652 divers to take part in the search and rescue efforts.

CNN’s Kyung Lah and Judy Kwon reported from Lindo, and CNN’s Greg Botelho reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Chelsea J. Carter, Stella Kim, Jung-eun Kim, Faith Karimi and Pauline Chiou contributed to this report.