18 Apr 2014

Why did the South Korean ferry sink? Transcript revealed

Authorities release the transcript of conversation between harbour and ferry officials – but how much do we really know what happened to South Korean ferry Sewol?

South Korea ferry (Reuters)

Investigations into the disaster, South Korea’s worst maritime accident in 21 years, have focused on possible crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and structural defects of the vessel. Although the ship appears to have passed all of its safety and insurance checks.

The ship’s 69-year-old captain also came under scrutiny after witnesses said he was among the first to escape the sinking vessel.

‘Junior officer’

According to investigators, captain Lee Joon-seok was not on the bridge at the time the Sewol started to list sharply, with a junior officer at the wheel.

Prosecutors on Friday issued arrest warrants for Mr Joon-seok, the officer at the wheel and one other crew member for failing in their duty to aid passengers.

“I’m not sure where the captain was before the accident. However, right after the accident, I saw him rushing back into the steering house ahead of me,” said Oh Young-seok, one of the helmsmen on the ship who was off duty and resting at the time.

Koreans don’t have the view that they have to stay with their ship until the end – Maritime author

“He calmly asked by how much the ship was tilted, and tried to re-balance the ship,” said Mr Young-seok, who was speaking from a hospital bed in the city of Mokpo on Friday, where the injured have been taken.

Handing over the helm is normal practice on the voyage from Incheon to Jeju, which usually takes 13.5 hours, according to local shipping crew.

Transcript of the Sewol's distress calls


Sewol: Harbor affairs Jeju, do you have reception of The Sewol?
Jeju VTS: Yes, Sewol, this is Harbor affairs Jeju
Sewol: Please notify the coast guard. Our ship is in danger. It's listing right now.


Jeju VTS: Where's your ship? Yes, got it. We will notify the coast guard.
Sewol: The ship has listed a lot. Can't move. Please come quickly.
Sewol: We're next to Byeongpung Island.
Jeju VTS: Yes, we got it.


Jeju VTS: Sewol, this is Harbor affairs Jeju. Do you have reception? Sewol, Harbor affairs Jeju.


Sewol: Harbor affairs Jeju, this is Sewol
Jeju VTS: Sewol, this is Harbor affairs Jeju. Channel 21, please.
Radio conversation on VHF Channel 21.


Jeju VTS: Sewol, this is Harbor affairs Jeju.
Sewol: Jeju, Sewol here.
Jeju VTS: what's the current situation?
Sewol: Currently the body of the ship has listed to the left. The containers have listed as well.
Jeju VTS: OK. Any loss of human life or injuries?
Sewol: It's impossible to check right now. The body of the ship has tilted, and it's impossible to move.
Jeju VTS: Yes, OK. Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship.
Sewol: It's hard for people to move.
Jeju VTS: Yes, got it.
Radio conversation on VHF Channel 12


Sewol: Harbor affairs Jeju, do you have reception of Sewol?
Jeju VTS: Yes, this is Harbor affairs Jeju, Sewol
Sewol: What's going on with the coast guard?
Jeju VTS: Yes, we have notified the coast guard. Currently we are calling Jindo VTS and Wando VTS. Please hold for a moment.
After this, Jeju VTS notified other ships and Wando VTS.

‘Rocks and reefs’

The ferry went down in calm conditions and was following a frequently travelled route in familiar waters. Although relatively close to shore, the area was free of rocks and reefs. Mr Mr Joon-seok has not commented on when he left the ship, although he has apologised for the loss of life.

He was described as an industry veteran by the officials from Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, the ship owner, and others who had met him described him as an “expert”.

Read more: South Korea ferry crash shows 'sickening' safety flaws

“I don’t know why he abandoned the ship like that,” said Ju Hi-chun, a maritime author who interviewed the captain in 2006 as one of the experts on the route to Jeju island.

But he added: “Koreans don’t have the view that they have to stay with their ship until the end. It is a different culture from the west.”

‘Sharp turn’

Some media reports have said the vessel turned sharply, causing cargo to shift and the ship to list before capsizing.

Marine investigators and the coastguard have said it was too early to pinpoint a cause for the accident and declined to comment on the possibility of the cargo shifting.

The captain is also said to have delayed evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official ordered preparations to abandon ship, according to a transcript of the ship-to-shore exchange (above) and interviews with a crew member.

It raised more questions about whether quick action could have saved scores of passengers still missing and feared dead.