The first distress call from a sinking South Korean ferry was made by a boy with a shaking voice, three minutes after the vessel made its fateful last turn, authorities said Tuesday.

One said there had been a mistake as the boat made a turn. Another said there was an eventual order to abandon ship. He said the crew gathered on the bridge and tried to restore balance, but could not.

"Maybe the steering gear was broken," one said.

Media said the ship lost power for 36 seconds, which could have been a factor.

Public broadcaster KBS, quoting transcripts of the conversation between the crew and sea traffic control, the Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center, said the passengers were told repeatedly to stay put.

For half an hour, the crew on the third deck kept asking the bridge by walkie-talkie whether or not they should make the order to abandon ship, KBS said.

No one answered.

"We kept trying to find out but ... since there was no instruction coming from the bridge, the crew on the third floor followed the instructions on the manual and kept making 'stay where you are' announcements," KBS quoted a crew member as saying. "At least three times."

Lee was not on the bridge when the ship turned. Navigation was in the hands of a 26-year old third mate who was in charge for the first time on that part of the journey, according to crew members.

In a confused exchange between the sinking Sewol and maritime traffic control released by the government, the crew said the ship was listing to port.

"Make passengers wear life jackets and get ready in case you need to abandon ship," traffic control said.

The Sewol answered: "It's difficult for the passengers to move now."

Reuters