South Korea ferry disaster: Witnesses describe heroic crew members who gave lives to save passengers on sinking ship as death toll continues to rise

One female steward, among first found dead, told fleeing passengers she would not abandon ship until everyone had been saved
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Since the ferry sank off the coast of South Korea last week, leaving more than 300 people missing or confirmed dead, officials and commentators have been quick to condemn the "unforgivable" conduct of captain and crew.

Yet as the death toll from the Sewol disaster continues to rise, eye-witness reports of a very different kind have started to emerge.

With the ferry heavily listing and the water rising, some crew members gave up their own lifejackets to let passengers have them, it has been reported.

One female steward refused to leave with a group of teenagers whom she had helped off the ship, saying it was her job to stay until everyone had been got to safety. She was later found dead.

Other senior members of the crew have described how they moved off to smaller ships but did not leave, instead risking the choppy waters to sail close to the Sewol and get people out through windows.

Nearly a week after the sinking of the ferry, the official death toll has risen above 100 for the first time.

Following reports that the ship's captain told people to remain in their rooms and was then apparently among the first evacuated, South Korea's president Park Geun-hye said: "What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. Unforgivable, murderous behaviour."

Some crew indeed fled the ferry - but not all. At least seven of the 29 crew members are missing or dead, and a number of those who did survive stayed on or near the ship to help passengers.

"His last words were, 'I'm on my way to save the kids,"' Ahn So-hyun told reporters of what her husband, missing crew member Yang Dae-hong, told her by cellphone as the ship began to sink Wednesday. He was referring to the 323 high school students on the ferry, which was carrying a total of 476 people.

Passenger Koo Bon-hee, 36, told The Associated Press that there were not enough life jackets for everyone in the area on the third floor where he and others waited. So crew members — two men and two women — didn't wear any so that all the passengers could have one.

One of the first bodies recovered after the ferry sank was 22-year-old crew member Park Ji-young, who helped students evacuate until the last minute despite not having her own life vest, South Korean media reported. Witnesses quoted by the Yonhap news agency described  how she told students that crew members must stay on the ship until everyone else leaves, and that she would follow them after helping passengers.

south-korea-15.jpgBy the time the late evacuation order came through and the crew got off the bridge, the tilt of the ship was so great they could barely walk.

Oh Yong-seok, a 57-year-old helmsman, said he and four crew members worked from nearby boats to smash windows on the sinking ferry, dragging six passengers stuck in cabins to safety.

Oh said that a first mate — who with the captain is among those now detained by police — used his knowledge of the ship's layout to help direct rescuers as they worked to get passengers off onto rescue boats. He said he and his colleagues remained at sea trying to help until an official, who appeared to be from the coast guard, told them to head to land.

"We did hard work, but no media are talking about that," Oh said. "Instead, they say all crew members fled."

As well as dealing with the fallout of public opinion, the crew members themselves are struggling to understand why their captain apparently failed to stay on the ship longer or help oversee rescue operations.

Oh said he initially thought the captain tripped while the ship was listing and was badly injured - and expressed surprise that TV footage later showed him walking without obvious problems.

"The captain should have stayed there," Oh said, "even if it meant his death."

Additional reporting by The Associated Press