22 Apr 2014

‘Save us! I think we’re sinking’ – missing ferry boy

The first distress call from the stricken South Korean ferry that sank on Wednesday was made by a boy to a fire station, minutes after the vessel began to go down.

South Korean ferry (Reuters)

The call was forwarded to the coastguard and was followed by about 20 others by phone from children to the fire brigade, a fire station officer said.

The Sewol ferry sank on a routine trip south from the port of Incheon to the traditional honeymoon island of Jeju.

Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers on a high school outing. A total of 104 people are now known to have died, but another 198 are missing, presumed trapped inside the vessel.

‘I think it’s sinking’

The boy who made the call, with the family name of Choi, is among the missing.

His voice was shaking and sounded urgent, a fire officer told MBC TV. It took a while to identify the ship as the Sewol.

“Save us! We’re on a ship and I think it’s sinking,” Yonhap news agency quoted him as saying.

The fire station official asked him to switch the phone to the captain, and the boy replied: “Do you mean teacher?”

The pronunciation of the words for “captain” and “teacher” is similar in Korean.

‘Act of murder’

Several crew members, including the captain, left the ferry as it was sinking, witnesses have said, after passengers were told to stay in their cabins.

President Park Geun-hye said on Monday that instruction was tantamount to an “act of murder”.

Many of the children did not question their elders, as is customary in hierarchical Korean society.

South Korean ferry (Reuters)

Public broadcaster KBS, quoting transcripts of the conversation between the crew and sea traffic control, said the passengers were told repeatedly to stay put.

For half an hour, the crew on the third deck kept asking the bridge by walkie-talkie whether or not they should make the order to abandon ship, KBS said. No one answered.


On Tuesday, a crew member said the crew tried to launch lifeboats, but could not get near because of the tilt of the ship. News reports said he was a second mate but did not provide his name.

He was one of four who have been detained and charged with negligence. Captain of the ship Lee Joon-seok, 69, was not on the bridge when the ship turned.

Navigation was in the hands of a 26-year-old third mate who was in charge for the first time on that part of the journey, according to crew members.

The government on Tuesday released a timeline of the ferry’s last minutes, stable and afloat. It made its scheduled turn en route to Jeju at 8.49am. and started listing within a minute. By 8.55am it was drifting back on itself and keeling to port.

Mr Joon-seok, seen on television with his head lowered and covered, told reporters soon after the sinking he feared passengers would be swept away by the ferocious currents if they abandoned ship. He has not explained why he left the vessel.

In a confused exchange between the sinking Sewol and maritime traffic control released by the government, the crew said the ship was listing to port.

“Make passengers wear life jackets and get ready in case you need to abandon ship,” traffic control said.

The Sewol answered: “It’s difficult for the passengers to move now.”