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Errors by Coast Guard detailed

Transcripts reveal the precious time lost as the Sewol was sinking

July 03,2014
When the doomed Sewol ferry was listing and sinking on April 16, the Coast Guard made a false report to the Blue House that it successfully rescued 370 passengers in the first hour after the accident.

Three lawmakers of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy released transcripts of phone conversations between Coast Guard officials and the Blue House, as well as from the 119 rescue service, to detail the poor handling of the rescue work in the initial hours of the accident when passengers trapped in the ferry were desperately calling for help.

The transcripts also reveal that the Blue House did not even have a count of the missing passengers even five hours after the nation’s worst postwar maritime disaster.

According to the transcripts, at 9:45 a.m., an hour after the ferry started to list, the Blue House’s emergency management headquarters called the Coast Guard and asked them, “Have you started rescue work?”

The Coast Guard replied, “Well, it’s not the time to start rescue work. We are just watching the situation because there has been no passenger who jumped from the ferry yet.”

That exchange suggests the Coast Guard merely watched the ferry, waiting for passengers to get out of the sinking vessel by themselves, and took no active measures to help them.

At 12:50 p.m., the Coast Guard lost precious time when 119 rescue service workers arrived at the scene with a helicopter.

“Our helicopter is already at the scene and all of our professional rescue workers are waiting there,” a 119 rescue service worker told a Coast Guard official, according to the transcript. “If there is any passenger calling for help, we will immediately dispatch the workers because they are all able to dive.”

However, the Coast Guard only repeatedly said, “Just a moment please,” or “We are now preparing for rescue work,” or “I will put you through to an official who is in charge of that.”

The ferry capsized at 11:20 a.m. At 12:47 p.m., a Blue House official asked the number of casualties, and a Coast Guard official said, “We confirmed two dead, based on a media report.” At 1:04 p.m., the Coast Guard said, “We have 370 survivors, sir, as of now.”

Of the 476 people on the Sewol this morning, 172 were rescued in the first few hours of the tragedy, 293 were killed and 11 are still missing.

Even after the ferry completely sank, the Blue House focused on reporting to the president rather than directing rescue work, the opposition lawmakers said.

“We should report this within five minutes from now,” a Blue House official told a Coast Guard official while asking for details of the situation.

The Coast Guard official said, “We are figuring out all the numbers… the survivors are about 170.”

But when the Coast Guard official updated the number at 2:36 p.m. to 166, the Blue House official said, “What? Oh my God. I’ve already completed reporting to the VIP [president].”

The prosecution yesterday requested detention warrants against three Coast Guard officials on suspicions they neglected their duties.

BY LEE SO-AH, KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]







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