APRIL 23, 2014 — The death toll in the Korea's Sewol ferry disaster has passed a grim turning point, with the number of deaths now exceeding the number of those missing. As of 5.00 p.m. New York time, Arirang News was reporting 159 dead, 143 missing and 174 rescued.
Meantime, the story behind the disaster that is emerging from Korean media reports is one with few heroes — least of all among the Sewol's crew.
"Accounts by the captain and crew of the ill-fated ferry Sewol that the ship had tilted too much to allow them to reach the cabins and manipulate the life boats have turned out to be completely false," reports the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
It published Korea Coast Guard photographs that show rescuers boarding the ship and moving around attempting to free lifeboats.
"In a picture showing the rescue worker investigating the 10th lifeboat, a man believed to be a crewmember is seen running out of the wheelhouse. Clad in a blue work uniform, the man hops on the rescue boat that lies around 5 m away," says the newspaper. "That flatly contradicts the account that it was hard to move around."
"Even when the rescue boat arrived at the scene, no passengers could be spotted on the wide deck and roof," says Chosun Ilbo. "If the captain had instructed the passengers to abandon ship, at least dozens of high school students could have survived."
It quotes an official at the joint investigation team as saying "any crewmember who was familiar with the ship could have ordered the passengers to leave, but it appears that none of them even bothered to think about the passengers."
The newspaper says 15 members of the ferry's crew were rescued and seven were on the first Coast Guard rescue vessel to reach the scene.
Yonhap News Agency has a slightly different version. It says: "All 15 crewmen in charge of driving the ship survived the disaster, as they escaped through a passage reserved for them after instructing the passengers to stay put. Of the remaining 14 crew members, including part-time workers and foreign singers, only five were rescued."
Crew negligence may also have contributed to the ferry's sinking. Model tests conducted with a scale model of the Sewol by Japanese researchers show it tipping and capsizing when weights simulating the cargo were not secured.
Closed circuit TV footage of the loading of the Sewol shown on Arirang News show vehicles being loaded onto the vessel, one after another, including 30 more automobiles than was previously declared. The vessel sails just three minutes after the last vehicle goes on board, giving crew insufficient time to correctly secure the freight.
The ferry's operator, Cheonghaejin Marine Co., is also coming under close prosecutorial scrutiny and Korea's Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) is looking into details of foreign exchange transactions by the company, and Yoo Byung-eun, a former chief of Semo Marine Co., and his two sons.
According to Yonhap News Agency, Cheonghaejin Marine is "virtually a successor to Semo Marine, which went bankrupt in 1997, hit by a series of scandals, including a sinking of its cruise boat."
Cheonghaejin was set up in 1999 by taking over ships and assets held by Semo Marine's affiliate, and Yoo's two sons control of Cheonghaejin through what Yonhap calls "a cobweb-like ownership structure."
Korea's tax agency is probing the ferry operator and the owner family over possible tax evasion.
Also coming under scrutiny is the Evangelical Baptist Church based in Yongsan, central Seoul, which Yonhap says was established by Yoo's father-in-law, Kwon Sin-chan, in the 1960s and is now led by Yoo.
"It is considered as a cult with some 20,000 followers, including most of the senior officials of Cheonghaejin's affiliates and most of the Sewol's crew members," says Yonhap.
Prosecutors suspect there may have been abuses of the church's tax exempt status.
Although the Equasis data base shows that the Sewol was not classed with any classification society, the Korean Register of Shipping conducts safety inspections on behalf of the government and Joon Ang Daily reports that it, too, is now being investigated by the Busan District Prosecutors's Office after giving the ferry passing grades for safety in February.