Hearing of South Korea ferry sinking highlights lackluster rescue

Rescue boats sail around the South Korean passenger ship "Sewol".
PHOTO: Reuters

A three-day hearing on matters related to last year's ferry sinking wrapped up Wednesday with the fact-finding committee stressing a lack of sufficient rescue efforts, men in charge dodging responsibility and suspicions left unanswered.

The hearing focused mainly on the rescue efforts taken by the now-defunct Korea Coast Guard, Maritime Ministry and other related government officials in the face of Sewol's sinking, which left 304 dead or missing in April 2014.

The five committee members recommended by the ruling Saenuri Party boycotted the hearing.

The Sewol Special Investigation Committee raised questions as to whether or not the pressure to report every detail of the case to higher authorities had hindered rescue operations. They pointed out that Kim Kyung-il, former captain of the Mokpo Coast Guard patrol boat 123, sentenced to three years in prison for inadequate rescue operations, had about two dozen phone conversations with the Coast Guard even after he was appointed to lead the operations.

"I cannot agree. It did not affect the operation," said former Coast Guard Commissioner General Kim Suk-kyoon, during the second day of the hearing.

He also denied allegations that the authorities exaggerated the number of divers in rescue operations, saying that "deploy" does not necessarily mean that all divers had dived.

Kim also refrained from divulging many details, such as whether the rescuers told the 467 passengers to exit the vessel, saying he could not remember. During the tragedy, the ship captain and the crew instructed the passengers ― most of whom were high school students ― to stay in the vessel, stopping them from getting out in time.

Families of Sewol victims said Wednesday that the rescue operations were "greatly inflated." Jung Sung-wook, father of 17-year-old Dong-soo who was killed in the incident, claimed that no rescue operation at all was conducted on April 17, the day after Sewol plunged below the surface.

Cho Hyeong-gon, then-emergency director of the Mokpo Coast Guard, ducked responsibility, saying that the people "at the scene" should have made the judgement, and not the people who were "120 kilometers away."

"We received instructions, but most of our actions were based on the manual," he said.

Kim Kyung-il said that he "did not even think about" ordering people to abandon ship. When asked if he should have done so after learning about the situation from the Sewol captain and the crew ― who were among the first recued ― he said, "Now that I think about it, yes. I panicked at the time."

He remains the only rescuer to receive criminal punishment related to Sewol incident.

The committee also held the Maritime Ministry liable for writing imprecise reports about the rescue operation that triggered faulty initial news reports saying all passengers had been rescued.

Former Maritime Minister Lee Joo-young claimed that media reports were not based on the official statements of the ministry, but said the ministry was "ultimately responsible for the incident."

The hearing also touched on suspicion that the Coast Guard officials fabricated the transcript of its instructions to dodge responsibility. Lee Choo-jae, who headed the rescue team at the Korea Coast Guard at the time, said that transcripts had been "upgraded" several times to add parts that were neglected before.

A gaffe from one of the Coast Guard officials made Monday sparked the anger of bereaved families.

Park Sang-wook, formerly of the Coast Guard, said the students failed to recognise the danger because "they didn't know better."

With the officials denying responsibility, Kim Dong-su ― a Sewol survivor credited with saving 20 fellow passengers ― shouted "tell the truth" as he intentionally injured himself. He and his wife, who fainted at the sight, were carried off to the hospital.