Transcript Shows South Korea Ferry Crew Was Plagued by Panic, Confusion

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 20 2014 5:06 PM

Transcript Shows South Korea Ferry Crew Was Plagued by Panic, Confusion

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Relatives wait for missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Jindo port on Sunday

Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Transcripts of the last communications between the South Korean ferry that sank on Wednesday and marine traffic controllers were released Sunday and appear to show a confused crew that seemed to be plagued by indecision minutes after the ship had clearly began listing. The transcripts do little to clarify why the ship began listing in the first place, but they do seem to show the crew was hesitant—either unwilling or unable—to order a full evacuation of the ship, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The transcripts show how almost 30 minutes after the ferry first issued a distress call a marine controller tells the crew to “go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing.” But the crew member seemed obsessed with the question of whether passengers would be rescued right away if they abandoned ship. That question was posed three times and came after the crew said they couldn’t broadcast instructions to all the passengers and that no one could move. The transcript could provide some answers as to why the passengers didn’t get on the lifeboats, notes CNN. But the transcript also seems to show the crew wasted precious time.

An excerpt from the BBC of the transcripts of a conversation that took place 29 minutes after the ferry first called for help:

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?''
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Now comes a point where it seems there may have been miscommunication from the traffic controller, who said a patrol boats were 10 minutes away when the truth is a civilian ship was nearby and said was ready to help any passengers who went overboard, notes the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the death toll has increased to 58 as of Sunday night after rescuers managed to use axes to break into windows of the ferry and recover corpses. An additional 244 people are still missing.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.