Evacuation came too late for many on sinking ferry

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South Korean Coast Guard officers try to rescue missing passengers from a sunken ferry in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for more than 280 passengers still missing a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Korean Coast Guard officers try to rescue missing passengers from a sunken ferry in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for more than 280 passengers still missing a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Korean Coast Guard officers search for missing passengers from a sunken ferry in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for more than 280 passengers still missing a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Korean Coast Guard officers try to rescue missing passengers from a sunken ferry in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Fears rose Thursday for the fate of more than 280 passengers still missing more than 24 hours after their ferry flipped onto its side and filled with water off the southern coast of South Korea. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT

South Korean Coast Guard officers search for missing passengers aboard a sunken ferry in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for more than 280 passengers still missing a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Rescue workers carry the body of a victim from a sunken ferry, at a hospital in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. The ferry carrying more than 450 people, mostly high school students on an overnight trip to a tourist island, sank off South Korea’s southern coast on Wednesday, leaving more than 280 people missing despite a frantic, hours-long rescue by dozens of ships and helicopters.(AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT

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MOKPO, South Korea (AP) — An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank off South Korea’s southern coast, likely with scores of people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos, a crew member said Thursday.

The first instructions from the captain were for the passengers to put on life jackets and stay put, and it was not until about 30 minutes later that he ordered an evacuation, Oh Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member, told The Associated Press. But Oh said he wasn’t sure if the captain’s order, given to crew members, was actually relayed to passengers on the public address system.

Several survivors also told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.

The loss of that precious time may have deprived many passengers of the opportunity to escape as The Sewol sank on Wednesday, not too far from the southern city of Mokpo.

Nine people, including five students and two teachers, were confirmed dead, but the toll was expected to jump amid fears that the missing 287 passengers — many high school students — were dead. The confirmed fatalities include a female crew member in her 20s, five high school students and two teachers. Coast guard officials put the number of survivors Thursday at 179.

The increasingly anxious search for the missing was hampered Thursday by strong currents, rain and bad visibility.

There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students on a school trip to the tourist island of Jeju in the south of the country. The ferry had traveled overnight from Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea, and was three hours short of its destination when the ship began to list. The cause is not yet known.

The Sewol now sits — with just part of its keel visible — in waters off Mokpo, about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul.

Oh, a helmsmen on the ferry with 10 years’ shipping experience, said that when the crew gathered on the bridge and sent a distress call the ship was already listing more than 5 degrees, the critical angle at which the ship can be brought back to even keel.

At about that time, a third mate reported that the ship could not be righted, and the captain ordered another attempt, which also failed, Oh said. A crew member then tried to reach a lifeboat but tripped, prompting the first mate to suggest to the captain that everyone should evacuate, Oh said.

The captain agreed and ordered an evacuation, but Oh said that amid the confusion and chaos on the bridge he does not recall the message being conveyed on the public address system.

By then it was impossible for crew members to move to passengers’ rooms to help them because the ship was tilted at an impossibly acute angle. The delay in evacuation also likely prevented lifeboats being deployed.

“We couldn’t even move one step. The slope was too big,” said Oh, who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain.

Passenger Koo Bon-hee, 36, told the AP that many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break. He wanted to escape earlier but an announcement said passengers should stay put.

“The rescue wasn’t done well. We were wearing life jackets.

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