S. Korea transcript fuels anger over ferry disaster

S. Korea transcript fuels anger over ferry disaster
Relatives of victims of the South Korean ferry 'Sewol' sit before the sea at Jindo harbour.

JINDO, South Korea - Anger flared in South Korea on Monday over fresh indications that the evacuation of a capsized ferry was delayed by panic and indecision, as the death toll from the disaster pushed past 60 with hundreds still missing.

"Precious minutes just wasted," ran the front page headline in the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper, in response to a communications transcript released Sunday revealing the confusion as the crew and marine traffic control debated evacuating the sinking vessel.

While an unidentified crew member repeatedly asked if there were coastguard vessels on hand to rescue anyone who abandoned ship, the marine controller insisted the crew check that passengers had donned lifejackets and extra clothes.

At one point the marine controller stressed that only the captain could make a call on evacuating the 6,825-tonne Sewol as it listed sharply over before eventually capsizing.

"When it comes to evacuation, you, captain, make the final judgement," the controller said.

Captain Lee Joon-Seok was arrested Saturday along with a helmsman and the ship's relatively inexperienced third officer, who was in charge of the bridge when disaster struck.

Lee was charged with negligence and failing to secure the safety of hundreds of passengers - most of them children, travelling to the popular resort island of Jeju on a high school holiday trip.

The captain and crew - most of whom escaped the ferry - have faced vehement criticism for delaying the order to abandon ship - a possibly fatal error of judgement before the vessel fully submerged with hundreds trapped on board.

'Both shunned responsibility'

While most South Korean media reports pilloried the captain over the released transcript, the largest circulation daily - the Chosun Ilbo - said the crew and the marine control were both culpable.

"Both shunned responsibility!" was its front page verdict.

The confirmed death toll from the disaster rose to 64 on Monday morning, with 238 people still unaccounted for.

Coastguard officials said 24 bodies had been removed from the ship which sank on Wednesday morning, but hundreds more were still believed trapped inside.

Realistic hopes of finding survivors have disappeared, but families of the missing are still opposed to the use of heavy cranes to lift the ship before divers have searched every section.

"We believe there are many people on the third and fourth deck where cabins were located, so will focus on these areas," a coastguard spokesman told reporters.

"We have also opened a route leading to a dining hall, and will try to enter that area," he said.

South Koreans have been stunned by the ferry tragedy, which looks set to become one of the country's worst peacetime disasters and has unleashed a sense of profound national grief.

The weeping of devastated family members could be heard across the harbour on Jindo island as boats brought the most recently recovered bodies in from the nearby rescue site Monday morning.

Traumatic identification

Wrapped in white cloth, each body was gently lifted off the boats and placed on a stretcher which was then carried away by six uniformed police wearing surgical face masks.

In a nearby tent they were placed on white tables and prepared as best as possible for the grieving relatives to make a visual identification.

The families have bitterly criticised the official response to the disaster, saying delays in accessing the submerged ship may have robbed any survivors of their last chance to make it out alive.

Since bodies began being pulled from the ship itself on Sunday, they have also attacked the pace of the recovery effort, insisting the bodies should be removed faster while they are still recognisable.

Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 350 were high school students headed for the holiday island of Jeju.

A group of nearly 200 family members had set off Sunday on a hike from Jindo to Seoul - 420 kilometres (260 miles) to the north - where they planned to make a personal protest to President Park Geun-Hye.

But they were prevented leaving the island by a police and eventually returned after a series of minor scuffles.

Only 174 were rescued when the ferry sank and no new survivors have been found since Wednesday.

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