Prosecutors Must Probe Bungled Coast Guard Rescue

Footage published Monday showed the initial response of the Korea Coast Guard just after the ferry Sewol started to sink on April 16. A cutter that arrived at the scene at around 9:30 a.m. rescued the captain and crew of the Sewol in a rubber dinghy but did nothing to evacuate the trapped passengers.

The captain of the cutter claimed the Sewol had tilted too far to get aboard. But footage shows one coast guard boarding the Sewol's deck at around 9:47 a.m. and attempting to release one of its lifeboats by kicking it, while others help the captain and crew off the ship. One Sewol crewmember even goes back to the steering cabin to get his jacket.

This shows that the Sewol did not pose a grave risk to the safety of rescue workers in the initial moments after the accident. When the Coast Guard cutter left port, its crew were aware that the Sewol was carrying between 400 and 500 passengers. It did not take a genius to realize that most of the passengers were still trapped in the vessel. But no rescue worker attempted to enter the capsized ferry and help the passengers.

The cutter captain claims he instructed the passengers several times by loudhailer to evacuate the ship, but the thunderous sound of two rescue helicopters hovering overhead drowned out his instructions.

Text messages sent by the victims show the cabins had not been flooded even until 10:10 a.m. This means that coast guards had a full 40 minutes to try anything to get the passengers out.

Yet the crew of the Sewol told the passengers to stay put even until 10:15 a.m. If coast guards had entered the vessel to tell the passengers to get out, many more lives could have been saved.

On Tuesday, another video taken by a fisherman who came to help shows the Coast Guard cutter carrying a single rubber dinghy. Fishing boats and other private vessels which rushed to the scene were the ones busy rescuing passengers. The cutter and the two helicopters were full of rescue workers. No specially trained rescue divers reached the scene until 11:24 a.m.

They should have arrived at the scene at the same time to deal with a sinking vessel as large as the Sewol that was carrying so many passengers.

Prosecutors need to investigate whether the Coast Guard mobilized rescue workers on time, why they did not attempt to board the Sewol and why it took so long for specialized divers to get there. They also need to find out whether the Coast Guard was following proper emergency procedures and whether they had been regularly trained for any emergency at all.

englishnews@chosun.com / Apr. 30, 2014 14:10 KST