The families of the sailors of the sunken trawler Oryong 501 lashed out at the ship's operator on Tuesday, claiming that the sailors failed to escape the vessel due to the operator's late evacuation order.
Attending a briefing held by the fisheries company Sajo Industries, the families also argued that the old age of the 1,753-ton ship was partially attributable to the sinking that left at least one Korean dead and 52 others unaccounted for.
The 36-year-old ship sank in the western Bering Sea on Monday. The ship was carrying some 60 crew members including one Russian inspector, 11 South Korean sailors and 35 Indonesians. Seven people were rescued, but one - a Korean sailor - died of hypothermia, according to Seoul's Fisheries Ministry.
"The fisheries firm keeps shifting the responsibility for the evacuation order to the ship's captain, but he can't issue the order before the firm directs him to do so," said one of the family members during the briefing.
"Had there been any problem with the ship, the efforts should have been focused on rescuing the sailors in the sinking ship. But the rescue efforts were not made in a timely, prompt way."
Lim Chae-ok, a director of Sajo Industries, said that the evacuation order did not come immediately as the sailors judged that the tilting ship regained its balance after they pumped water out of the vessel.
"The captain is the one who makes judgments based on his reading of the situations at sea," he said. "After the sinking was reported, we wanted to send other ships (to rescue them), but we couldn't due to high waves that slowed down the speed of those ships."
Kim Jeong-su, president of the fisheries firm, made an apology, vowing to make all possible efforts to rescue those who went missing. "(We are) sorry to the families of the missing sailors and to the people (for causing concerns)," he said.
Rescue personnel had difficulty reaching the site of the sinking due to bad weather. On Tuesday morning, the rescue operations were halted due to strong winds and high waves, Sajo officials explained.
Rescuers have so far found four life boats from the ill-fated trawler, but they failed to discover any survivors. Russian and South Korean vessels operating nearby were mobilized to help rescue the missing sailors.
"On Tuesday morning, winds were blowing at speeds of over 25 meters per second, and the height of the waves was up to 7 meters. Under these conditions, a ship can't shift its direction and those on board can't see what's ahead," said Lim.
Over 90 per cent of the country's deep-sea fishing vessels are at least 21 years old, according to data from the Korea Overseas Fisheries Association. As of late 2013, 312 of the total 342 vessels - 91.2 per cent - are aged 21 or older.
Built in 1978 in Spain, the Oryong 501 was bought by Sajo Industries in 2010. The company said that the ship went through a major renovation in 2003.