Korean ferry controversy grows as rescue mission limps on

The controversy surrounding the conduct of the crew on the Sewol ferry expanded further Monday with an eyewitness alleging that the ship's first mate may have failed to relay the evacuation order.

As new accounts feed the growing controversy, the death toll continued to rise as divers recovered more bodies from the ship's wreckage some 20 kilometers off the coast of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province.

Early Monday, divers recovered five bodies thought to be students from Danwon High School, pushing the death toll to 65. With the most recent recoveries, the number of those unaccounted for stood at 237 as of 6 p.m. There were 476 people aboard the vessel when it sank on Wednesday.

According to an eyewitness, the ship's first mate was given the order to evacuate by the captain, Lee Joon-seok. This is the first piece of evidence to support Lee's claim that he ordered an evacuation before leaving the vessel.

"The captain gave the order to abandon ship to the first mate as the ship was going down. The first mate had the duty to lead the passenger evacuation," Oh Yong-seok, one of Sewol's helmsmen, was quoted as saying by the Herald Business.

"The first mate was holding a mobile phone, but I did not see him call other crew members or take action (to relay the order)."

Oh, however, was unable to recall the time the order was given.

Lee, along with six crew members, including the first and third mate, have since been taken into custody for several charges, including manslaughter.

The investigation has also revealed that the first mate is the man recorded on the communications log between the Sewol and Jindo Vessel Traffic Service. The ship was in communication with Jindo VTS for 31 minutes from 9:06 a.m., in contrast to earlier reports that the ship had only contacted authorities on Jejudo Island.

In the log, the first mate is heard repeatedly asking about the whereabouts of the Coast Guard as the Jindo VTS advised the crew to implement safety measures and later to abandon ship.

He also told the Jindo VTS that the ship's broadcasting system had failed and that he was unable to make a ship-wide announcement for evacuation at 9:23 a.m. on Wednesday. The crew member in charge of onboard announcements, however, told local media that the announcement to put on life vests was made at 10 a.m., and the evacuation order about 15 minutes later.

The search and rescue mission was also set to pick up, aided by new equipment and subsiding weather conditions. Since late Sunday, the authorities brought in remotely-operated vehicles to search for the missing inside the vessel.

The slowing of the area's notoriously strong tidal currents is also considered likely to aid the underwater searches.

According to the Coast Guard, the divers have secured five guidelines into the vessel, and teams of divers were set to comb through the third and fourth decks and the dining hall Monday afternoon.

The rescuers also plan to secure five additional guidelines into different parts of the Sewol.

While hundreds remain missing, experts are becoming more concerned about the psychological condition of survivors. On Friday, Danwon High School's vice principal died by suicide while one of Sewol's engineers attempted to take his own life on Monday. The engineer's suicide was stopped by another crew member.