The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App

South Korea ferry crew not all "cowards": Stories of heroism amid public outcry

MOKPO, South Korea -- As the ferry sank, some crew members gave their lifejackets to passengers. One refused to leave until she shepherded students off the ship, and was later found dead. Others worked from rescue boats to break windows with hammers and pull people trapped in cabins to safety.

Nearly a week after the sinking of the South Korean ferry, with rising outrage over a death count that could eventually top 300, the public verdict against the crew of the Sewol has been savage and quick. "Cowards!" social media users howled. "Unforgivable, murderous," President Park Geun-hye said Monday of the captain and some crew.

Some fled the ferry, including the captain, but not all. In all, 22 of the 29 members of the ferry's crew survived, and nine of them -- including the captain -- have been arrested or detained in connection with the investigation.

Four arrested on Tuesday talked to reporters after a court hearing, with their faces hidden by caps, sweatshirts and masks. One said the crew had tried to correct the ferry's listing early on, but that "various devices" failed to work. The crew member said they reported the emergency and tried to launch lifeboats, but the ferry was tilted too far.

At least seven of the 29 crew members are missing or dead, and several of those who survived 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.

South Korea's Coast Guard confirmed Tuesday that 121 people were confirmed dead and 181 still listed as missing. Relatives, as well as many other South Koreans, are enraged, lashing out at what they see as a botched rescue operation and, most vehemently, at the captain.

Captain Lee Joon-seok told passengers to stay in their cabins as the ferry listed and filled with water, then took at least half an hour to order an evacuation and apparently escaped on one of the first rescue boats.

But passengers recall moments of quiet bravery from the crew.

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, even though she wasn't wearing a life vest, South Korean media reported. Witnesses told Yonhap news agency that she told students that crew members must stay on the ship until everyone else leaves, and that she would follow them after helping passengers.

Crew members describe a rending dilemma as the ship went down. The late evacuation order meant that by the time the crew got off the bridge, the tilt of the ship was so great they could barely walk, let alone rescue passengers. Should they flee the sinking ship or risk their lives to save others trapped below?

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 is detained - used his knowledge of the ship's layout to help direct rescuers as they worked to pull 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 asked them to head to land.

His eyes welling with tears, Oh said it breaks his heart to watch news of rescue attempts from a hospital room, where he's being treated for an injury to his foot. He's tormented over the likely deaths of children who are about the same age as his own.

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

Yang, the missing crew member, was dedicated to his job, said friend Lee Joung-hwa, a celebrity manager who met Yang six years ago on the ferry during an event she had organized there.

"He was the type of guy who cared for the customers of the ferries from the moment they stepped on board," Lee said in an interview at the gymnasium in Jindo. She traveled there out of concern for her friend.

Some crew members said they feel they cannot discuss their efforts to help because the public is so enraged.

One crew member under investigation, an engineer, locked himself in a hotel room in Mokpo on Monday after telling fellow crew members that he would kill himself, senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said. Police found a rope when they entered the room, but the engineer appeared to be unhurt, Ahn said.

The engineer was among the two crew members detained Tuesday, prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said. He had been held by the coast guard on Monday, but Ahn said then it was for his own safety.

Crew members are also struggling to understand why the captain, who some called kind-hearted, didn't stay on the ship longer or help oversee rescue operations.

Oh said the captain tripped while the ship was listing and crashed into an iron door. Oh said he thought Lee might have left the ferry when he did because he was badly injured. He was surprised then to see in television footage that the captain was walking without much problem.

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