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Ferry evacuation confusion revealed

JINDO, South Korea -- The official death toll in the South Korean ferry sinking soared to 58 on Sunday after divers finally succeeded in entering the vessel, which a newly released transcript shows was crippled with confusion and indecision well after it began listing dangerously.

Three times in succession, and about half an hour after the ferry Sewol began tilting on Wednesday, a crew member asked Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center (VTS) whether passengers would be rescued if they abandoned ship off South Korea's southern coast. That followed several statements from the ship that it was impossible for people aboard to even move, and another in which it said it was “impossible to broadcast” instructions.

Many people followed the captain's initial order to stay below deck, where it is feared they remain trapped. About 240 people are still missing.

“Even if it's impossible to broadcast, please go out and let the passengers wear life jackets and put on more clothing,” an unidentified VTS official urged at 9:24 a.m., 29 minutes after the Sewol first reported trouble, according to the transcript, released by the South Korean coast guard.

“If this ferry evacuates passengers, will you be able to rescue them?” the unidentified crew member asked.

“At least make them wear life rings and make them escape!” was the response.

“If this ferry evacuates passengers, will they be rescued right away?” the crew member asked again.

“Don't let them go bare — at least make them wear life rings and make them escape!” the VTS official repeated. “The rescue of human lives from the Sewol ferry ... the captain should make his own decision and evacuate them. We don't know the situation very well. The captain should make the final decision and decide whether you're going to evacuate passengers or not.”

“I'm not talking about that,” the crew member said. “I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?”

The VTS official then said patrol boats would arrive in 10 minutes, but did not mention that another civilian ship was already nearby and had told VTS 10 minutes earlier that it would rescue anyone who went overboard.

Only 174 people are known to have survived the sinking of the Sewol, which had been on its way from the South Korean port city of Incheon to the southern island of Jeju. The captain initially ordered passengers to stay in their rooms, and took more than a half hour to issue an evacuation order — an order several passengers have said they never heard.

The confirmed death toll jumped from 33 to 58 within 24 hours as divers, hampered for days by strong currents, bad weather and low visibility, finally found a way inside the sunken vessel. They quickly discovered more than a dozen bodies there in what almost certainly was just the beginning of a massive and grim recovery effort. Some of the bodies found Sunday were recovered outside the ship.

Divers, who once pumped air into the ferry in the slim hope that survivors were inside, have yet to find anyone alive there.

The Sewol sank with 476 people on board, 323 of them students from a high school in Ansan. The 16- and 17-year-old students make up only 75 of the survivors, and about 225 of the missing. At least 23 of those confirmed dead are students, according to coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in.

A 21-year-old South Korean sailor, surnamed Cho, also died from injuries he sustained Wednesday while working on a warship going to help rescue passengers in the ferry, said Commander Yim Myung-soo of the South Korean navy.

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Relatives of missing passengers aboard the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol struggle with policemen while trying to march toward the presidential house to protest the government's rescue operation in Jindo on Sunday, April 20. (aFP)

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