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Transcript shows ferry captain delayed evacuation

MOKPO, South Korea — Fresh questions arose about whether quicker action by the captain of a doomed ferry could have saved lives, even as rescuers scrambled to find hundreds of passengers still missing Friday and feared dead.

Officials also offered a rare look at their investigations, saying they were looking into whether a crewman's order to abruptly turn the ship contributed to the 6,852-ton Sewol ferry tilting severely to the side and filling with water Wednesday.

The confirmed death toll from Wednesday's sinking off southern South Korea was 28, the coast guard said. Most of bodies have been found floating in the ocean because divers have been continually prevented from getting inside the ship by strong currents and bad weather. But 48 hours after the sinking the number of deaths was expected to rise sharply with about 270 people missing, many of them high school students on a class trip. Officials said there were 179 survivors.

New questions were raised by a transcript of a ship-to-shore exchange and interviews by The Associated Press that showed the captain delayed evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official ordered preparations to abandon ship.

The order at 9 a.m. by an unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center to put on lifejackets and prepare for evacuation came just five minutes after a Wednesday morning distress call by the Sewol ferry. A crewmember on the ferry, which was bound for Jeju island, replied that "it's hard for people to move."

The ship made a sharp turn between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m. Korea time, but it's not known whether the turn was made voluntarily or because of some external factor, Nam Jae-heon, a director for public relations at the Maritime Ministry, said Friday.

The captain has not spoken publicly about his decision making, and officials aren't talking much about their investigation, which includes continued talks with the captain and crew. But the new details about communication between the bridge and transportation officials follow a revelation by a crewmember in an interview with The Associated Press that the captain's eventual evacuation order came at least half an hour after the 9 a.m. distress signal.

Meanwhile, strong currents and rain made rescue attempts difficult again as they entered a third day. Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the sunken vessel, where most of the missing passengers are thought to be, said coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in.

Coast guard officials said divers began pumping air into the ship Friday, but it wasn't immediately clear if the air was for survivors or for a salvage operation. Officials said in a statement that divers were still trying to enter the ship.

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South Korean rescue team members search for passengers aboard a ferry sinking off South Korea's southern coast, in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 17.

(AP)

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