(LEAD) Opposition lawmakers berate Coast Guard over poor response to ferry sinking
MOKPO/INCHEON, South Korea, June 25 (Yonhap) -- Opposition lawmakers investigating the cause of April's deadly ferry sinking rebuked the Coast Guard Wednesday for its poor initial response to the disaster, claiming that more lives could have been saved.
Nine lawmakers from the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) and the minor opposition Justice Party arrived at the Mokpo Coast Guard Station in Mokpo, 410 kilometers south of Seoul, to question officials over their handling of the April 16 sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing.
The lawmakers are members of a special parliamentary committee charged with investigating the truth behind the tragedy.
During a meeting with Coast Guard officials, Rep. Woo Won-shik of NPAD expressed anger and frustration that the Coast Guard apparently neglected to contact passengers on the sinking ferry.
"If you had sent a text message or made a phone call telling them to abandon ship, the passengers would have made it out," he said. "What did you do with such an easy solution available?"
Woo claimed that the Coast Guard had the names and mobile phone numbers of six passengers, including those of a high school student who drowned after being the first to alert authorities of the sinking.
The lawmaker also asked officials why personal mobile phones were used instead of radios to give orders from the situation room and why crew members were rescued first before passengers.
Coast Guard officials replied that they did not think of sending text messages because they were so caught up in handling the emergency, while personal mobile phones had to be used because no more radios were available.
Officers did not realize until later that the people they had rescued first were crew members, they added.
Meanwhile, in Incheon, a port city west of Seoul, nine lawmakers of the ruling Saenuri Party held a meeting with officials of the Korea Shipping Association (KSA), a nonprofit organization in charge of inspecting and certifying vessels on behalf of the government.
The lawmakers, all members of the special parliamentary committee, slammed the officials for being "insincere" in their briefings.
"The KSA, even after experiencing the Sewol tragedy, isn't prepared to change at all," one lawmaker said, after an official smiled while giving a briefing about issues unrelated to the ferry sinking.
The lawmakers demanded to hear about the exact safety hazards that led to the disaster.
The KSA also reported that safety checks are conducted up to five minutes prior to a ship's departure.
Rep. Shin Yee-jin of the ruling party, however, argued that safety checks should be completed at least 30 minutes beforehand in order to prepare properly for departure.