SEOUL/MOKPO (Reuters) - The crew of a South Korean ferry that sank with hundreds of people on board repeatedly asked officers on the bridge whether or not to give the order to abandon ship, but there was no response, a crew member has said.
The Sewol ferry sank last Wednesday on a routine trip south from the port of Incheon to the sub-tropical holiday island of Jeju. The death toll stood at 104 on Tuesday, media reported.
Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers on a high school outing. Only 174 people have been rescued and the remainder are all presumed to have drowned.
The captain of the ship, Lee Joon-seok, 69, and other crew members have been arrested on negligence charges. Lee was also charged with undertaking an "excessive change of course without slowing down".
Several crew members, including the captain, left the ferry as it was sinking before many of the passengers, witnesses have said, after passengers were told to stay in their cabins. President Park Geun-hye said on Monday that instruction was tantamount to an "act of murder".
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Public broadcaster KBS, quoting transcripts of the conversation between the crew and sea traffic control, the Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Centre, said the passengers were told repeatedly to stay put.
"Stay where you are. Don't move. If you move, it will be more dangerous," the passengers were told.
For half an hour, the crew on the third deck kept asking the bridge by walkie-talkie whether or not they should make the order to abandon ship, KBS said.
No one answered.
"At the time, we could not confirm what the situation was on the bridge," KBS quoted a crew member as saying.
"We kept trying to find out but ... since there was no instruction coming from the bridge, the crew on the third floor followed the instructions on the manual and kept making 'stay where you are' announcements. At least three times."
Many of the children did not question their elders, as is customary in hierarchical Korean society. They paid for their obedience with their lives.
It was one of the children who first raised the alarm, a fire station officer told Reuters. That call was followed by about 20 others, all from children, and transferred to the coastguard.
Lee was not on the bridge when the ship turned. Navigation was in the hands of a 26-year old third mate who was in charge for the first time on that part of the journey, according to crew members.
Lee, seen on television with his head lowered and covered, told reporters soon after the sinking he feared passengers would be swept away by the ferocious currents if they abandoned ship. He has not explained why he left the vessel.