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Nation/World

April 18, 2014

Confused, chaotic scene described on sinking ferry

MOKPO, South Korea (AP) — There was chaos and confusion on the bridge of a sinking ferry, with the captain first trying to stabilize the listing vessel before ordering its evacuation, a crewman said yesterday.

By the time the order came, however, he said it had become impossible to help many of the passengers — although the captain and a dozen crew members survived.

The confirmed death toll from Wednesday’s sinking of the Sawol off southern South Korea was 20, the coast guard said. But the number was expected to rise with more than 270 people missing, many of them high school students on a class trip. Officials said there were 179 survivors.

Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the sunken vessel, but strong currents would not allow them to enter, said coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in. The divers planned to pump oxygen into the ship to help any survivors, but first they had to get inside, he added.

The water temperature in the area was about 54 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes of exposure.

Kim said three vessels with cranes are being brought in to help with the rescue and to salvage the ferry, which sank not far from the southern city of Mokpo and now sits with just part of its keel visible.

The captain of the Sawol, identified by broadcaster YTN and the Yonhap news agency as 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, was questioned by the coast guard and made a brief, videotaped appearance, although his face was hidden by a gray hoodie.

“I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” Lee said. “I don’t know what to say.”

Kim Soo-hyun, a senior coast guard official, said officials were investigating whether the captain got on one of the first rescue boats.

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