Around 10 minutes of footage of the initial rescue efforts after the ferry Sewol capsized off the southwest coast on April 16 shows that attempts to save passengers were half-hearted at best.
The footage was spliced together from clips taken from the Korea Coast Guard Cutter 123 from 9:28 a.m. until 11:17 a.m. A Coast Guard official told reporters, "We postponed revealing the footage since it was submitted to the joint investigation committee but decided to show it in order to dispel suspicions that we are trying to hide it."
It shows the 100-ton cutter and 14 crew arriving at the scene of the accident at around 9:30 a.m. The Sewol was at the time listing 50 to 60 degrees to port. The cutter avoided getting close to the ferry. "It could have gotten crushed by the Sewol if it came too close," said one Coast Guard official.
Kim Kyoung-il, the captain of Cutter 123, said, "We instructed the passengers several times after arriving at the scene to abandon ship and jump into the ocean." Kim added, "We did everything we could."
At 9:38 a.m., the cutter dispatched a rubber boat and began rescue operations near the stern of the Sewol. That part of the footage shows the crew jumping into the rubber boat along with the ferry captain, Lee Joon-seok, clad in his underwear.
Few other passengers are seen being rescued.
Two Coast Guard rescuers then board the Sewol and attempted to release lifeboats. But they make no attempt to enter the ferry. Only passengers who have reached the deck or have jumped into the ocean are rescued.
A Coast Guard official said, "We were informed that between 400 to 500 passengers were on the ship. We attempted to get inside the ship, but so many people [seeking to be rescued] came down, so we began rescuing them first."
"We ordered one rescue worker into the wheelhouse and to assist the evacuation of passengers but could not get in because the ferry was tilted."
The official said one coast guard was injured while breaking the window of the wheelhouse and even showed the wound.
Asked by reporters if the rescuers were aware that the first people to be rescued were the crew since they emerged from the bridge, the official said, "They were wearing life jackets that covered their uniforms, so we didn't know they were crewmembers. We had no idea Captain Lee Joon-seok was among the rescued."
The last part of the footage shows the Sewol going completely under at around 10:39 a.m., leaving only the stern above the water.
Experts and families of the victims pointed out serious flaws in the Coast Guard's initial response. The first problem was with the announcement Coast Guard rescuers claim they made urging the passengers to evacuate.
Kim Chan-oh at Seoul National University of Science and Technology said, "Even under difficult circumstances, coast guards should have entered the wheelhouse and made an announcement over the ship's public address system to evacuate and gather on deck if possible. That is the basic procedure you must follow to save lives, but they did not do that and focused only on the passengers who were coming out, resulting in their failure to rescue more passengers."
Im Keung-soo at Mokpo National Maritime University said, "If it was difficult to enter the ship, rescuers should at least have attempted to break the windows or open the doors so that passengers trapped inside could get out."