Crew of the ill-fated ferry Sewol spoke on the phone to operator Chonghaejin Marine seven times when the ship capsized off the southwest coast on April 16.
Investigators are trying to establish whether Chonghaejin staff took proper action or gave orders to rescue or evacuate the passengers at any point before the captain and most of the crew bailed out and abandoned the passengers.
The first call was placed at 9:01 a.m. by a 32-year-old crewman identified as Kang to the Incheon branch office, investigators said.
At 9:03 a.m., a staffer at Chongjaehin headquarters in Jeju called captain Lee Joon-seok (69) and they talked about 35 seconds. Until around 9:40 a.m., there were five more phone calls between a Chonghaejin staffer and the 42-year-old first mate also identified as Kang.
The first mate was in charge of passenger safety and ship security.
Investigators are questioning crew and the Chonghaejin staff who spoke to them to discover what of anything was said about rescuing or evacuating the passengers.
"If Chonghaejin staff had ordered only the crew to escape without ordering them to take proper action to rescue the passengers, they too could be prosecuted for dereliction of duty and as accomplices to manslaughter," an investigator said.
A crewman testified that Lee was playing a video game on his smartphone in his cabin after leaving the wheelhouse right before the accident, according to investigators.
Lee left the bridge 40 minutes before the accident, returned about 10 minutes before the accident and left again after talking with crew there and went back to his cabin.
While Lee was staying in his cabin, a crewman dropped in briefly and came away with the impression that the captain was playing a video game. But Lee denies this, saying he was reading a text message.
The captain and crew knew of the Sewol's high center of gravity due to expansion of the upper decks to make room for more passengers and poor ability to regain its balance. Some crewmembers had brought up the issue with the ferry operator but were reportedly ignored.
Lee testified that he did not take any special action despite knowing of the problem.
The 26-year-old female shipmate identified as Park who was navigating the ferry at the time of the accident and the 55-year-old helmsman identified as Cho had also been told of the problem from Lee and others, investigators added.