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Acts of bravery emerge from pilloried ship crew


MOKPO, South Korea (AP) -- As the ferry sank, some crew members gave their lifejackets to passengers. One refused to leave until she shepherded students off the ship, and was later found dead. Others worked from rescue boats to break windows with hammers and pull people trapped in cabins to safety.

Nearly a week after the sinking of the South Korean ferry, with rising outrage over a death count that could eventually top 300, the public verdict against the crew of the Sewol has been savage and quick. "Cowards!" social media users howled. "Unforgivable, murderous," President Park Geun-hye said Monday of the captain and some crew.

Some fled the ferry, including the captain, but not all. At least seven of the 29 crew members are missing or dead, and several of those who survived stayed on or near the ship to help passengers.

"His last words were, `I'm on my way to save the kids,'" Ahn So-hyun told reporters of what her husband, missing crew member Yang Dae-hong, told her by cellphone as the ship began to sink Wednesday. He was referring to the 323 high school students on the ferry, which was carrying a total of 476 people.

More than 100 people are confirmed dead and nearly 200 more are still missing. Relatives, as well as many other South Koreans, are enraged, lashing out at what they see as a botched rescue operation and, most vehemently, at the captain. He and two crew members have been arrested, accused of negligence and abandoning people in need. Six other crew members have been detained - two of them on Tuesday - though prosecutors have yet to obtain arrest warrants for them.

Captain Lee Joon-seok told passengers to stay in their cabins as the ferry listed and filled with water, then took at least half an hour to order an evacuation and apparently escaped on one of the first rescue boats.

But passengers recall moments of quiet bravery from the crew.

Passenger Koo Bon-hee, 36, told The Associated Press that there were not enough life jackets for everyone in the area on the third floor where he and others waited. So crew members - two men and two women - didn't wear any so that all the passengers could have one.

One of the first bodies recovered after the ferry sank was 22-year-old crew member Park Ji-young, who helped students evacuate until the last minute, even though she wasn't wearing a life vest, South Korean media reported. Witnesses told Yonhap news agency that she told students that crew members must stay on the ship until everyone else leaves, and that she would follow them after helping passengers.

Crew members describe a rending dilemma as the ship went down. The late evacuation order meant that by the time the crew got off the bridge, the tilt of the ship was so great they could barely walk, let alone rescue passengers. Should they flee the sinking ship or risk their lives to save others trapped below?

Oh Yong-seok, a 57-year-old helmsman, said he and four crew members worked from nearby boats to smash windows on the sinking ferry, dragging six passengers stuck in cabins to safety.

Oh said that a first mate - who is detained - used his knowledge of the ship's layout to help direct rescuers as they worked to pull passengers off onto rescue boats. He said he and his colleagues remained at sea trying to help until an official who appeared to be from the coast guard asked them to head to land.

His eyes welling with tears, Oh said it breaks his heart to watch news of rescue attempts from a hospital room, where he's being treated for an injury to his foot. He's tormented over the likely deaths of children who are about the same age as his own.

"We did hard work, but no media are talking about that," he said. "Instead, they say all crew members fled."

Yang, the missing crew member, was dedicated to his job, said friend Lee Joung-hwa, a celebrity manager who met Yang six years ago on the ferry during an event she had organized there.

"He was the type of guy who cared for the customers of the ferries from the moment they stepped on board," Lee said in an interview at the gymnasium in Jindo. She traveled there out of concern for her friend.

Some crew members said they feel they cannot discuss their efforts to help because the public is so enraged.

One crew member under investigation, an engineer, locked himself in a hotel room in Mokpo on Monday after telling fellow crew members that he would kill himself, senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said. Police found a rope when they entered the room, but the engineer appeared to be unhurt, Ahn said.

The engineer was among the two crew members detained Tuesday, prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said. He had been held by the coast guard on Monday, but Ahn said then it was for his own safety.

Crew members are also struggling to understand why the captain, who some called kind-hearted, didn't stay on the ship longer or help oversee rescue operations.

Oh said the captain tripped while the ship was listing and crashed into an iron door. Oh said he thought Lee might have left the ferry when he did because he was badly injured. He was surprised then to see in television footage that the captain was walking without much problem.

"The captain should have stayed there," Oh said, "even if it meant his death."


Klug wrote from Seoul. Associated Press writers Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul, Gillian Wong in Jindo, South Korea, and Hyung-jin Kim in Mokpo, South Korea, contributed to this report.

Join the discussion

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jbrown1444 April 22 2014 at 1:56 PM

when it first sank, why didnt they tow it to shallow waters? seems like it would have been easier to get inside it then and look for survivors.

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1 reply
dubricus jbrown1444 April 22 2014 at 2:18 PM

It all sounds easy, but it's not. To tow there has to be more buoyancy than weight. If you tow to shallower water, you still have an upside down ship filled with water. Look at what happened with the ship in Italy & that was in very shallow water.... not really rough seas with fast currents & extremely cold water.

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bigdaddy1cv April 22 2014 at 2:27 PM

It is a sad tradgedy , that could have been avoided I think .My prayers and my heartfelt condolences go out to all the families .May God help them through this very sorrowful time
and give them the strenghth and help that they will need.

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Hi Barb April 22 2014 at 2:37 PM

I am wondering if the load below deck ( over 350 cars) and also more heavy transport exceeded wha t he ship could legally carry, so when it made a sharp turn this extremely heavy load shifted, tilting and sinking the ship so quickly. This is so tragic.

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1 reply
nikopolis Hi Barb April 22 2014 at 3:03 PM

i think you are correct

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Joebudgie April 22 2014 at 2:39 PM

At the first sign of trouble all passengers should have been instructed to put on their life jackets and stand by their life boat stations for further instructions. Weather and water temperature should not have been a factor in the captains decision. Instructing them to remain in their cabins below decks was a certain death warrent. What was his reason for that? Would passengers have been in the way of attempts to correct the ships attitude if they stood by the life boats? I doubt it.

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alfredjsenior April 22 2014 at 7:26 PM

A lack of integrity at the core of the Captain's being and trying to hang on to the fantasy that he could somehow do something to avoid shame for what he immediately knew was a catastrophic situation was what led to the deaths of so many folks.

It is better for the Captain of a ship to unwaveringly carry the heavy responsibilities of so many lives without respite than it is to have a "kind hearted" nature.

It is infinitely better for the Captain of a ship to have a core integrity that would unwaveringly compel that Captain to instantly do the right thing when a mistake is made regardless of his personal consequences, than to have a Captain without such core integrity, who would be tempted to take ineffective actions, which would temporarily lull folks into a false sense of safety, while he tried to figure a way out of the catastrophe, that he knew his actions had set in motion.

God Bless the publicly vilified heroes and all the broken hearts. May they eventually be granted justice and comfort. God Bless all those, who lost their lives and so many far too soon.

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knoxwarner April 22 2014 at 7:21 PM

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume the authorities know what they're doing when they take on the responsibility for keeping us safe.

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zm2mc April 22 2014 at 6:55 PM

Very sad. In our family, which has several Naval and sea faring members, you learn from a very young age that a "Captain is always expected to remain with his vessel, whether it results in his imminent death."

I believe that some ferry workers did help, and that some did not.

Different people, different senses of self entitlement to live or die, or selflessness, and a willing to save others.

Prayers are with all involved.

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Mike April 22 2014 at 2:54 PM

When was the last time a captain or crew actually went down with their ship?

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4 replies
minutemaus April 22 2014 at 2:54 PM

"The captain goes down with the ship" does not, apparently, apply to those who captain ferries.

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spsportsmom4 April 22 2014 at 6:51 PM

I was so glad to read that some of the crew stayed to help the passengers even though their leader abandoned ship; They knew what was truly important about the situation.

Flag Reply +12 rate up
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