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Korean Crew ‘Walking on Walls’ Just Before Ferry Sank

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April 19 (Bloomberg) -- Oh Young Seok, one of at least 10 surviving crew on the Sewol ferry that sank off the South Korean coast, said the boat was tilting so quickly that passengers weren’t able to reach the lifeboats.

“It’s not as though we didn’t want to help,” the 57-year-old helmsman said in an interview yesterday outside Mokpo Hankook Hospital, during a break from police questioning. “The vessel was tilting so fast we couldn’t reach any lifeboats. The ship was at 60 degrees and we were already walking on the walls.”

Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 28 are known to have died and 174 been rescued, leaving 274 people still missing from the April 16 sinking, which occurred off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. More than 600 divers have been taking turns to try to enter the sunken vessel to find survivors.

Oh, who said he wasn’t at the controls when the accident happened, said other crew were inside the steering house.

“Truth is, only they would know exactly why, and what happened,” said Oh, who has 10 years’ experience working on ships. “No other crew members would know the reason, I guess.”

South Korean authorities are seeking an arrest warrant for Captain Lee Joon Seok and two unnamed crew members, said Park Jeang Il, a press official at Mokpo Coast Guard station, where a combined police-and-prosecutor investigation team is based.

About 10 crew, including the captain, are under investigation over the cause of the ferry’s sinking, Kim Su Hyeon, Commissioner of the Korea Coast Guard’s West Regional Headquarters in Mokpo, said in a statement distributed by the security ministry. The probe will focus on whether the crew made any mistakes, if they broke any rules related to cargo, and if the ship had any faults, according to the statement.

Bridge Absence

Captain Lee, 69, wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the sinking and he had assigned the third navigation officer to steer the vessel, Park Jae Uck, a prosecutor based in Gwangju, told reporters in Mokpo. “He may have returned to the wheelhouse as the ferry began tilting,” he said.

Investigators are probing whether the ferry turned too quickly or abnormally. They declined to say what announcements were made as the ferry sank, or whether passengers were told to stay in their cabins.

The 46 lifeboats on board the ferry had been checked on Feb. 10, according to Oh, who hurt his back during his escape. He was dressed in a white hospital gown and had an IV drip attached to his arm.

Functional Lifeboats

“All of the lifeboats were functional,” he said, sucking on his cigarette. “People came and opened all of them up to check and install them.”

Bodies found overnight and today all had life jackets on and weren’t discovered inside the ferry. They may have been trapped under the vessel, the coast guard said.

The ferry, owned and operated by privately held Chonghaejin Marine Co., listed and capsized in an area of the ocean as shallow as 20 meters (66 feet) in some parts, based on readings from a coast guard vessel used in the rescue operation. The ferry was en route from Incheon to Jeju island, popular with tourists and honeymooners.

“We know the rule,” said Oh. ‘The rule is to help the old and the weak, pregnant women, then other passengers, and then we should leave when it appears all have left, and the captain should abandon ship last.’’

To contact the reporter on this story: Cynthia Kim in Seoul at ckim170@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stuart Biggs at sbiggs3@bloomberg.net Teo Chian Wei

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