S Korea ferry survivor 'haunted' by memory of trapped students

  • 23 April 2014
  • From the section Asia

A survivor of South Korea's ferry disaster has described taking the agonising decision to save himself as the ship capsized and water washed away students he was trying to rescue.

Lorry driver Eun-su Choi told the BBC: "We were trying to pull them up... but it was very difficult. We then decided to climb up, but I now regret it."

The confirmed death toll has reached 150, as divers recovered more bodies from the sunken hull of the Sewol.

Another 152 people are still missing.

The ship's crew have been accused of failing to evacuate passengers, with the captain and several other crew members charged with negligence.

A total of 174 passengers were rescued from the Sewol, which capsized as it sailed from Incheon in the north-west to the southern island of Jeju.

Screen grab from video taken on 16 April 2014 shows passengers on top of listing ferry
Footage of the disaster shows passengers clambering on the side of the listing ferry awaiting rescue

Of the 476 people on board, some 339 were children and teachers on a school trip. Many were trapped inside the ship as it listed and then sank within two hours of distress signals being sent.

On Wednesday prosecutors raided companies linked to ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Company as part of the ongoing investigation into the disaster.

'Sliding on their knees'

Eun-su Choi had made the ferry journey hundreds of times. He had just had breakfast and gone up on the deck to smoke when disaster struck.

"All of a sudden the ship tilted and started to sink. Containers started to fall off into the sea, and I realised we were going to capsize.

"I was clinging on to the handrail. I tried to save some of the students in the cafeteria. They were sliding around on their knees by the cashier's desk."

He added: "We were trying to pull them up with a fire hose, but it was very difficult to rescue them. We then decided to climb up, but I now regret it."

He said his friend managed to pull a six-year-old girl to safety after she was passed by her parents and other passengers, hand to hand.

South Korean rescue workers conduct their rescue operation at the area where the capsized passenger ship Sewol sank, as fishing boats emit light, in Jindo on 22 April 2014.
It is unclear what caused the ferry to sink so quickly
The bodies of a passengers aboard the Sewol, a South Korean ferry which sank in the water off the southern coast, are carried by rescue workers upon its arrival at a port in Jindo, South Korea, on 21 April 2014
Bodies are being brought to shore - where many relatives wait for news of their loved ones
People hold candles at a vigil for students among the missing passengers of a South Korean capsized ferry, in central Ansan on 22 April 2014.
A vigil for the missing passengers was held in Ansan, the hometown of many of the missing students

He said the parents and passengers, who did not survive the ordeal, were "the bravest people of all".

All of the people he saw helping the girl were swept away by the water, he added.

Reports suggest that passengers were told to remain in their rooms and cabins as the ship listed, amid confusion on the bridge over whether to order them to abandon ship.

The first distress call from the sinking ferry was made from a mobile phone by a boy with a shaking voice, officials told Reuters.

It reported that his plea for help was followed by about 20 other emergency calls from children on board the ship.

Salvage preparations

A crew member quoted by local media said that attempts to launch lifeboats were unsuccessful because the ship was listing too severely. Only two of the vessel's 46 lifeboats were reported to have been deployed.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has condemned the conduct of some of the crew, calling it "akin to murder".

Divers are continuing to search the sunken hull for the bodies of those who died.

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Crabster robot

Crabster robot
  • The crabster robot is the size and weight of a Smart car
  • It is designed to work up to 200m below the surface in high tidal currents where divers are unable to operate
  • A 500m-long cable allows four operators to control the robot from a surface vessel. Data is also fed to the surface via the cable
  • It is equipped with 10 optical cameras and a long-range scanning sonar
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The authorities are now preparing to lift the ferry to the surface but they cannot do that until all the families agree - and for some of those who have yet to recover the bodies of their children, this is still a difficult decision to make, reports the BBC's Jonathan Head, in Jindo.

An underwater robot was unloaded at Jindo port on Tuesday morning, ready to help in the operation to bring the hull to the surface.

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

Captain Lee Joon-seok was not on the bridge when the ferry began listing. It was being steered by a third mate who had never navigated the waters where the accident occurred, prosecutors say.

There were up to 30 crew members on the stricken ship, reports say, and some seven of them are missing.

Graphic showing location of sunken ferry and timeline of events
Ferry details