JINDO, South Korea — They slipped.
That’s the explanation a crew member from the sunken ferry Sewol gave Tuesday for being unable to reach life rafts as the ship rolled over and began to sink.
Crew members made attempts to get to the lifeboats, the crew member said. “But we slipped so we could not do that.”
The man was among four crew members who briefly answered reporters’ questions outside a courtroom Tuesday following their arrest the day before on charges related to the disaster. The men appeared with their heads bowed and faces covered, making it unclear which of them was speaking.
They are among nine crew members facing charges, including the captain and two more who were arrested Tuesday.
So far, 121 people are confirmed dead and 181 remain missing nearly a week after the ferry sank, according to the South Korean Coast Guard.
The failure to deploy the lifeboats is one of a series of problems that beset those on board the sinking vessel last Wednesday.
A transcript of a radio conversation released by authorities over the weekend suggested that passengers on the ship couldn’t reach lifeboats to escape because the ship tilted so quickly that it left many of them unable to move.
But the ship’s captain and some crew members have come under heavy criticism, notably for the captain’s decision to tell passengers to stay where they were.
In addition to the captain, two first helmsmen, one second helmsman, a third mate, the chief engineer, a technician and the two crew members arrested Tuesday face charges.
Search for survivors goes on
At the scene of the disaster, inflatable powerboats zipped across the sea off the country’s southwestern coast Tuesday, ferrying divers to the area where the ferry sank.
Two buoys mark the spot where the ship lies. Dozens of vessels, ranging from dinghies to warships, surround the site.
Divers plop into the cold, murky water, picking up guide ropes that lead them into the submerged ferry.
“Divers can’t even see their hands,” said Koh Myung-seok, a spokesman for the joint task force leading the search.
Authorities say the efforts are still a search-and-rescue operation, but no survivors have been found since 174 people were rescued soon after the ferry went down Wednesday.
‘It’s a mess’
On the shore, family members of missing passengers wait anxiously, many of them parents of high school students who were on a field trip. As bodies come in, relatives are called into white domed tents to identify the remains of their loved ones.
Divers are focusing on the third and fourth floors of the ferry, but gaining entry to a cafeteria where many passengers may have congregated is proving difficult.
Koh said authorities think a lot of people may have been in the cafeteria because the ferry sank in the morning.
“There are a lot of objects, including furniture. It’s a mess there,” Koh said Monday.
Divers have been trying to breach a wall between the lounge area and the cafeteria, Park Seung-gee, an official at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, said Tuesday.
“The conditions are so bad, my heart aches. We’re going in thinking there may be survivors. When we have to come back with nothing, we can’t even face the families,” said Bard Yoon, one of the divers.
Koh said that most of the bodies recovered were wearing life vests.
Captain and crew criticized
As the search continues, investigators are trying to figure out what happened to make the ship list before finally capsizing and sinking into the ocean.
Initial criticism has focused on the captain and some crew members. South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Monday that their actions were “akin to murder.”
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, has defended his decision to tell passengers to stay put as the ferry began sinking, saying he was concerned about the sea’s strong currents and cold water as well as the lack of rescue ships.
Questions have been raised about why the third mate was steering the ship when it ran into trouble on its way to a popular vacation island. The captain was in his cabin at the time.
Chonghaejin Marine, which operated the ferry, has posted an apology on its website.
“We pray for the Sewol victims who lost their precious lives due to the accident,” it said. “We prostrate ourselves before the victims’ families and beg for forgiveness.”
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