For more than 40 minutes as their ship foundered last Wednesday, crew members of the South Korean ferry Sewol spoke with local maritime traffic services about a possible rescue. The conversation centered on getting help to the ship and on getting its passengers off the ferry, according to a transcript released Sunday.
The radio transcript gives harrowing new detail to a tragedy that has left about 240 people still missing. Chief among the revelations is that early in its plight, the vessel seems to have listed too far to one side to deploy life boats – or to allow passengers to move.
The transcript also suggests the ship's crew had trouble communicating with the passengers and couldn't verify conditions on board, as the ship titled at more than 50 degrees.
The ferry had 476 people aboard, many of them high school students who were traveling to visit a resort island. As of Sunday afternoon in the U.S., the official death toll stood at 61; many expect it go far higher. Divers are working to recover bodies from the wreck.
Two topics – the promise of help from other ships, and the status of the ferry's passengers – dominate the radio transcript South Korea's coast guard released Sunday. The distress call took place between the Sewol and Jindo Island's Vessel Traffic Services Center; other ships in the area are also heard from.
Jindo is a large island off of South Korea's southwest coast where hundreds of passengers' relatives have gathered to await word of loved ones who were on the ferry.
The transcript documents communications between the authorities and unidentified crew members, including an early distress call the ferry had placed to a Vessel Traffic Service center in Jeju, its destination.
That initial call took place at 8:55 a.m. In it, a crewmember says, "Please notify the coast guard. Our ship is in danger. The ship is rolling right now," according to CNN.
"'The ship rolled over a lot right now. Cannot move. Please come quickly,' the person says one minute later.
"At one point Jeju advises the crew to get people into life vests.
"'It is hard for people to move,' Sewol replies."
Around 10 minutes later, the ship switched its call to Jindo Island, which was closer to its location. Some 30 minutes after that communication began, contact with the ferry was lost.
It isn't until late in the conversation that it becomes clear that an evacuation order has been given. Some 10 minutes before that mark, a crew member had said it was "impossible" for passengers to evacuate, because of the ship's steep angle. Later, the crew member repeatedly sought assurances that passengers could be picked up quickly after entering the water.
It isn't clear where the captain might have been during the communications; he was among those rescued from the sinking ship. The captain, Lee Jun-seok was arrested Saturday along with several crew members. The captain issued an apology as he was taken to jail.
A full transcript of the ferry's radio communication with Jindo Island VTS is below. It was translated from Korean by the AP. The news agency says it omitted the names of other ships "at the request of South Korean authorities."
SEWOL: Jindo VTS, this is Sewol ferry.
JINDO VTS: Sewol ferry, Sewol ferry, this is VTS. Is your ship sinking now?
SEWOL: Yes, that's right. Please send the coast guard here right away.
JINDO VTS: (Ship A), this is Jindo VTS.
SHIP A: Yes, go ahead.
JINDO VTS: 2.1 miles to your right, the Sewol ferry is sinking. We ask for your help in its rescue. Please go there and rescue it.
SHIP A: Yes, we're on our way.
9:08 a.m. - 9:09 a.m.
(Jindo VTS makes calls to other ships to help out, and a second one responds.)
SEWOL: Jindo VTS, this is Sewol.
JINDO VTS: Yes, this is VTS.
SEWOL: We are too tilted. We're almost going to fall over.
JINDO VTS: How are the people on board? (Ship A) is approaching your ship as fast as it can.
SEWOL: We are too tilted, we almost can't move.
JINDO VTS: (Ship B), this is Jindo Coastal VTS. On your portside M/V Sewol is man overboard.
SHIP B: OK. OK. I will alter course port side.
JINDO VTS: Sewol, this is Jindo VTS. Are the people on board on the life rafts or life boats?
SEWOL: No, we're not yet. The ship is too tilted, we can't move.
JINDO VTS: How many people are on board?
SEWOL: Yes, 450 people. ... It's about 500 people.
JINDO VTS: Yes, right now, a ship nearby, (Ship A), is on its way.
SEWOL: Yes. Please come quickly.
JINDO VTS: We are even contacting all nearby fishing boats.
SHIP A: The boat next to ours is evacuating. It's completely tilted to the left, it's dangerous to approach, but we'll try to approach while keeping a safe distance as much as we can.
JINDO VTS: Please approach as fast as you can. Please cooperate actively to rescue people.
SHIP A: Yes. If the passengers evacuate, we'll rescue.
JINDO VTS: Sewol ferry, are passengers able to evacuate?
SEWOL: The ship is too tilted, so it's impossible to evacuate.
JINDO VTS: We are contacting as many patrol boats and fishing boats and they are on their way.
(Jindo VTS communicates with another ship that offers to help.)
JINDO VTS: Sewol ferry, this is Jindo VTS. Can you hear? (Repeats four times.) What's the status of the sinking?
SEWOL: It's tilted more than 50 degrees to the left and it's impossible for people to move either left or right. Crew members are asked to wear life jackets and stand by. ... But actually it's impossible to check if they're wearing them or not. The crew members are gathered on the bridge and cannot move. Please come quickly.
JINDO VTS: OK, Sewol. How high has the water risen inside the ferry?
SEWOL: That cannot be checked either. I can confirm from the front side of the ship that some of the container boxes on the deck have fallen, but I can't move. I can't move even one step, left or right, on the bridge, so I'm holding the wall, barely standing.
JINDO VTS: (Ship A) is nearby and is approaching.
SEWOL: Yes, OK.
SHIP A: If passengers don't evacuate, I can't move alongside. Anyway, we'll be careful and move alongside to provide support.
JINDO VTS: (Unclear to whom this is addressed.) Currently, it is completely impossible for the Sewol ferry to evacuate. When you get there and when passengers evacuate, please rescue them as safely as you can.
(Jindo VTS calls other ships.)
SEWOL: Is the coast guard on its way? How long will it take to get here? Harbor affairs Jeju (another shore authority), can you hear the Sewol?
JINDO VTS: Sewol, right now, (Ship A) is approaching. It's impossible for it to come alongside. It is standing by.
SEWOL: OK. How long will it take for the coast guard to get here?
JINDO VTS: Yes, hold on.
SHIP A: We are right in front of you. We will stand by and when the people evacuate, we'll rescue them.
JINDO VTS: Yes, understood. Nearby, (Ship B) and (Ship C) are on their way. When passengers evacuate, please rescue them immediately.
SHIP A: Currently, there are some things floating near the front side of the Sewol. It's impossible to approach. It looks like it's about to sink.
JINDO VTS: It'll take 15 minutes before patrol boats arrive. Broadcast to the passengers that they should wear life jackets.
SEWOL: It's impossible to broadcast now.
JINDO VTS: Even if it's impossible to broadcast, please go out as much you can and make the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing.
SEWOL: If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?
JINDO VTS: At least make them wear life rings and make them escape!
SEWOL: If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?
JINDO VTS: Don't let them go bare, at least make them wear life rings and make them escape!
JINDO VTS: The evacuation of people on board Sewol ferry ... the captain should make a decision about evacuating them. We don't know the situation there. The captain should make the final decision and decide quickly whether to evacuate passengers or not.
SEWOL: I'm not talking about that. I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?
JINDO VTS: Patrol boats will be there in less than 10 minutes.
SEWOL: In 10 minutes?
JINDO VTS: Yes, in about 10 minutes, 10 minutes!
JINDO VTS: Sewol ferry, a helicopter will be there in one minute.
SEWOL: I can't hear you. Please talk to me slowly and clearly.
JINDO VTS: A helicopter will be there in one minute.
SEWOL: Say it again.
JINDO VTS: A helicopter will be there soon.
SEWOL: There are too many passengers. A helicopter is not enough.
JINDO VTS: A helicopter will be there and other ships nearby are approaching, for your information.
SEWOL: OK, got it, Jindo VTS. I can see a ship, but I can't read an AIS (location tracking data). What is the name of the red tanker near the front part of our ferry? Ask the ship to stand by, not in front of us but on the left side.
SHIP A: Yes, we're standing by, but because of the rising tide, we're being drifted. This is (Ship A). Helicopter is above now, for your information.
9:29 a.m. - 9:30 a.m.
(Jindo VTS talks to another ship that offers to help. It sends out an announcement that the ferry is sinking with 400 passengers on board and that all ships in the area should approach and help. Another ship responds to the call.)
(The Sewol provides its exact coordinates to Jindo VTS.)
9:33 a.m. - 9:37 a.m.
(Jindo VTS tells all boats to throw out lifejackets and lifeboats to rescue people when they evacuate.)
9:37 a.m. - 9:38 a.m.
JINDO VTS: Sewol ferry, Sewol ferry, this is Jindo VTS.
SEWOL: Yes, this is Sewol ferry, Sewol ferry
JINDO VTS: What's the status of the sinking?
SEWOL: It's impossible to check. Right now, well, passengers are (doesn't finish sentence). Coast guard and other ships are 50 meters away. Through the left side, people who are going to evacuate are trying to evacuate. I did broadcast, but it's impossible to move even to the left side.
JINDO VTS: OK, got it.
SEWOL: The ship is tilted 60 degrees to the left. Right now, even the aircraft is up there, coast guard. (Meaning unclear.)
(The transcript continues with Jindo VTS sending out SOS calls and contacting other boats to help. It also calls repeatedly to the Sewol, which does not respond.)