The captain was among the first to flee. Only a couple of the 44 life rafts aboard were deployed. The hundreds of passengers were instructed over the intercom to “stay inside and wait” as the ship leaned to one side and began to sink, dragging scores of students down with it.
“I repeatedly told people to calm themselves and stay where they were for an hour,” Kang Hae-seong, the communications officer on the South Korean ferry that sank on Wednesday, said from his hospital bed. He added that he could not recall taking part in any evacuation drills for the ship, and that when a real emergency came, “I didn’t have time to look at the manual for evacuation.”
It took two and a half hours for the ferry, the Sewol, to capsize and become submerged in the blue-gray waters off the southwestern tip of South Korea. Yet in that time, only 179 of the 475 people believed to have been on board were rescued. By Thursday evening, the confirmed death toll was 25.
As rescuers battle bad weather and dwindling hopes to search for the 271 people still missing, most of them students, evidence is growing that human error contributed to one of South Korea’s worst disasters in recent decades.
Kim Su-hyun, a provincial coast guard chief, told reporters on Thursday that the ship’s captain, Lee Jun-seok, stood accused of violating his responsibilities by abandoning the ferry ahead of most of his passengers. Coast guard officials who questioned Mr. Lee on Thursday said they were reviewing possible criminal charges, while the police said they were investigating whether he had escaped aboard one of the few life rafts used.
“I can’t lift my face before the passengers and family members of those missing,” Mr. Lee said during a brief appearance before reporters on Thursday."