JINDO, South Korea -- The captain was among the first to flee. Only a couple of the 44 life rafts aboard were deployed. The hundreds of passengers were instructed over the intercom to "stay inside and wait" as the ship leaned to one side and began to sink, dragging scores of students on a school trip down with it.
"I repeatedly told people to calm themselves and stay where they were for an hour," Kang Hae-seong, communications officer on the South Korean ferry that sank Wednesday, said from his hospital bed. He added that he could not recall taking part in any evacuation drills for the ship, and that when a real emergency came, "I didn't have time to look at the manual for evacuation."
It took 2 1/2 hours for the ferry, the Sewol, to capsize and become submerged in the blue-gray waters off South Korea's southwestern tip. Yet in that time, only 179 of the 475 people believed to have been on board were rescued. By Thursday evening, the confirmed death toll was 25.
As rescuers battle bad weather and dwindling hopes to search for the 271 people still missing, most of them students, evidence is growing that human error contributed to one of South Korea's worst disasters in recent decades.
Kim Su-hyun, a provincial Coast Guard chief, told reporters Thursday that the ship's captain, Lee Jun-seok, stood accused of violating his responsibilities by abandoning the ferry ahead of most of his passengers. Coast Guard officials who questioned Mr. Lee on Thursday said they were reviewing possible criminal charges, while police said they were investigating whether he had escaped aboard one of the few life rafts used.
"I can't lift my face before the passengers and family members of those missing," Mr. Lee said during a brief appearance before reporters Thursday. But he provided little clarity on what had led the 6,825-ton Sewol to lean so far to its side before sinking, and why so many aboard had been unable to escape.
For some maritime experts, the captain's decision to abandon the ship and the crew's emergency performance seemed to echo problems in the wreck of the Costa Concordia, an Italian cruise ship that ran aground in 2012, killing 32 people.
For the 325 students from Danwon High School who made up the bulk of the passengers, it was a trip they had been eagerly awaiting, a last chance for fun before a grueling year of studying for South Korea's university entrance exam. Soon after the ferry left port Tuesday night bound for the resort island of Jeju, they celebrated by launching fireworks from the deck.
According to survivors, the students were having a morning break after breakfast Wednesday when the ship began tilting. When the situation became critical, survivors said, many students were still on the third floor, where the cafeteria and game rooms were.
"I don't remember that there was any safety instruction before we boarded the ship," said Danwon student Kim Su-bin, 16, who survived by climbing out of the sinking ship and jumping into the water. "Life jackets were on the fourth floor, where the sleeping cabins were, but those who were on the third floor at the time had no life jackets."
Investigators said the Sewol appeared to have made a sharp turn to the left around the time it began to tilt. It had been sailing slightly off its usual course, they said, and Mr. Lee, the captain, had apparently tried to steer it back. It was unclear why he had attempted such a turn in waters known for their strong currents, or why the turn had caused the ship to lean.
Inside the ferry, chaos unfolded, survivors said, as the walls and floor seemed to exchange positions. Bottles and dishes fell. The ship's twisting stairways became almost impossible to negotiate. Passengers were tossed to one side. Trays and soup bowls overturned, said college student Song Ji-cheol, who worked part-time in the cafeteria.
Grainy smartphone video footage sent to a relative showed frightened passengers huddled in one room's corner as a voice on the ship's intercom urged people to "stay inside and wait, because the cabins are safer." Han Sang-hyuk, 16, blamed the crew's instructions for the high number of missing people, saying those who stayed in their rooms or were caught in small alleyways between corridors would not have been able to escape.
International Tugmasters Association chairman Alan Loynd, a longtime sea disaster investigator, would not comment directly on the crew's decisions. But "as a general rule," he said, "if a ferry started listing, I wouldn't be staying below decks."