South Korea ferry: Transcript reveals evacuation panic

Scuffles broke out as police prevented families from crossing a bridge to the mainland, as the BBC's Martin Patience reports

The last communications between the South Korean ferry that sank on Wednesday and traffic services reveal panic and indecision by the crew.

In the newly released transcript, a crew member repeatedly asks if there were vessels on hand to rescue passengers if evacuation was ordered.

The captain has said he delayed the move for fear people would drift away.

After three days, divers have now entered the ferry and retrieved 32 bodies, bringing the death toll to 64.

However, another 238 people are still missing. Some 174 passengers were rescued.

On Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said the behaviour of the captain and some of the crew was "tantamount to murder".

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The loss of so many children from a single school has turned this into a national disaster”

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The Sewol capsized during a journey from Incheon in the north-west to the southern island of Jeju. There were 476 people on board - including 339 children and teachers on a school trip.

Investigations are focusing on whether the vessel took too sharp a turn before it started listing and whether an earlier evacuation order could have saved lives.

Some experts believe the turn could have dislodged heavy cargo and destabilised the vessel.

Messages and phone calls from those inside paint a picture of people trapped in crowded corridors, unable to escape the sharply-listing ferry.

Details of the panic on the bridge emerged on Sunday, when the coastguard released a transcript of the last communications between the crew and controllers.

Sewol communications excerpt

Controller: "Please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing."

Crew member: "If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?''

Controller: "At least make them wear life rings and make them escape.''

Crew member: "If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?''

Controller: "Don't let them go bare. At least make them wear life rings and make them escape... We don't know the situation very well. The captain should make the final decision and decide whether you're going to evacuate passengers or not."

Crew member: "I'm not talking about that. I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?''

At 09:24 - 29 minutes after the Sewol issued its first distress call - a controller says: "Please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing.''

The unidentified crew member says: "If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?"

"At least make them wear life rings and make them escape,'' the controller from the Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Centre replies.

As he continues to urge the crew to prepare for evacuation, the crew member twice asks if passengers would be "rescued straight away".

It was not until 09:37 - a few seconds before the last communication - that it became clear to controllers that evacuation had been ordered.

On Saturday the captain, Lee Joon-seok, appeared on TV saying: "I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims.

"The current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without proper judgement, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties."

Graphic showing location of sunken ferry and timeline of events

'Novice' at the helm

Mr Lee, 69, was not on the bridge when the ferry began listing. It was steered inexperienced by a third mate who had never navigated the waters where the accident occurred, prosecutors said on Saturday.

The captain and two other crew members have been charged with negligence of duty and violation of maritime law.

Since the capsize, many of the relatives of those on board have been on Jindo island, near the site of the accident. Some have protested over the rescue operation.

The South Korean coastguard searches for missing passengers off the coast of Jindo island, 20 April The recovery operation is expected to take weeks
Relatives of victims of the South Korean ferry Sewol sit before the sea at Jindo harbour on 20 April 2014 Relatives of victims have gathered on Jindo island, near the site of the sinking
Relatives look at the names of recovered victims of the South Korean ferry "Sewol" at on a display board at Jindo harbour on April 20, 2014 Many are anxiously looking at a board where details of recovered bodies are given

Scuffles broke out when some family members tried to cross a bridge to the mainland, reportedly to march on the presidency building in Seoul, some 420km (260 miles) to the north.

"Bring me the body so that I can see the face and hug my child," shouted one woman.

Lee Woon-geun, father of missing passenger Lee Jung-in, 17, said: "We want an answer from the person in charge about why orders are not going through and nothing is being done. They are clearly lying and kicking the responsibility to others."

Sewol Ferry Captain Lee Joon-seok: "I am sorry to the people of South Korea"

Relatives are anxious for the bodies to be retrieved before they decompose.

The BBC's Jonathan Head on Jindo says even the prime minister came down to try to dissuade the protesters from marching on Seoul, with officials worried that the controversy could turn into a national political issue and harm the government.

Boats carrying 13 of the recently retrieved bodies arrived at Paengmok Port on Jindo on Sunday.

About 200 ships, 34 aircraft and 600 divers have been taking part in the search operation. Fishing boats with powerful lights have been brought in to help the divers operate at night.

But the currents are still strong and the visibility remains challenging.

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