South Korean prosecutors sought arrest warrants on Friday for the captain and two crew members of the ferry that capsized two days before with hundreds of children on board, a coastguard official said.
“The joint investigation team of police and prosecutors asked for warrants to arrest three crew, including the captain,” the official in the southern coastguard headquarters in Makpo told reporters. He did not detail the charges.
The captain of the doomed South Korean ferry delayed evacuation for half an hour after a transport official ordered preparations to abandon ship, potentially leading to the loss of scores of lives, according to a transcript of a ship-to-shore exchange and interviews with those on board.
The order by an unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Centre to put on lifejackets and prepare for evacuation came just five minutes after a Wednesday morning distress call by the Sewol ferry as it tilted severely to the side.
But the order was not given by the captain for more than 30 minutes - and may never have been relayed to passengers, one crew member said.
This comes after a high school vice principal rescued from the South Korean ferry that sank with hundreds of his students on board was found dead on Friday, in what media reports said was an apparent suicide.
Police said that Kang Min-gyu, 52, had been missing since Thursday and appeared to have hung himself with his belt from a tree outside a large gym where families of the victims were staying.
Local police on Jindo island said the body of vice principal Kang Min-Kyu, 52, was found near the gymnasium where relatives of the 268 people still missing from the ferry disaster have been staying.
“The precise cause of death is still under investigation,” one police official told reporters.
Yonhap news agency cited police as saying he was found hanging from a tree having apparently committed suicide.
Of the 475 people on board the ferry when it capsized on Wednesday morning, 352 were students from Danwon High School in Ansan city just south of Seoul.
They were taking the ferry for a school excursion to the popular southern resort island of Jeju.
The vice principal was among 179 people who managed to escape the ferry in the few hours before it capsized and sank.
The confirmed death toll from Wednesday’s sinking off southern South Korea was 26. Most were bodies found floating in the ocean, the coastguard said.
Watch: We were told to stay in our cabins: ferry disaster survivor
But 48 hours after the sinking the number of deaths was expected to rise sharply with about 270 people missing, many of them high school students on a class trip. Officials said there were 179 survivors.
The captain hasn’t spoken publicly about his decision making, and officials are not talking about their investigation, which includes continued talks with the captain and crew.
New details about communication between the bridge and transportation officials follow a revelation by a crewmember during an interview that the captain’s eventual evacuation order came at least half an hour after the distress signal.
Today strong currents and rain again made rescue attempts difficult as they entered a third day.
Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the sunken vessel, where most of the missing passengers are thought to be, said coastguard spokesman Kim Jae-in.
A report by Reuters stating that divers had entered the hull of the boat was later denied by South Korea's coastguard.
Coast guard officials said divers began pumping air into the ship Friday, but it was not immediately clear if the air was for survivors or for a salvage operation. Officials said in a statement that divers were still trying to enter the ship.
South Korean officials also offered a glimpse into their investigation of what may have led to the sinking. They said the accident happened at a point where the ferry from Incheon to Jeju had to make a turn.
Prosecutor Park Jae-oek said in a briefing that investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn whose degree was so sharp that it caused the ship to list. Park said officials were also looking at other possible causes.
He added that testimonies from crew members differed about where the captain was when the ship started to list.
The captain was “near” the bridge as the ship continued listing, though Park could not say whether the captain was inside or right outside the bridge.
Angry and bewildered relatives today gathered on a nearby island and watched the rescue attempts. Some held a Buddhist prayer ritual, crying and praying for their relatives’ safe return.
Watch: Relatives hold ritual for South Korean ferry disaster victims
“It’s heartbreaking if I think about how cold she must be inside the water,” said Lee Yong-soon, 62, the aunt of a missing student, Jeong Da-hye.
“I want to jump into the water with them,” said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of another missing student, Park Ye-ji. “My loved one is under the water and it’s raining. Anger is not enough.”
The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius, cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes of exposure.
Kim, the coast guard spokesman, said two vessels with cranes had arrived and would help with the rescue and to salvage the ferry, which sank not far from the southern city of Mokpo and now sits with just a small part of its keel visible.
Salvage operations have not yet started because of the rescue attempts, he said. Attempting to raise the capsized ship could be risky because the vessel could get wedged deeper in the ocean floor, he added.
Out of 29 crewmembers, 20 people, including the captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, survived, the coast guard said.
The captain yesterday made a brief, videotaped appearance, although his face was hidden by a gray hoodie. “I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” Lee said. “I don’t know what to say.”
Kim Soo-hyun, a senior coast guard official, said officials were investigating whether the captain got on one of the first rescue boats.
The 146-metre Sewol had left Incheon on the northwestern coast of South Korea on Tuesday for the overnight journey to the southern resort island of Jeju. There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, which is near Seoul,
It was three hours from its destination Wednesday morning when it began to list for an unknown reason.
Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry with 10 years of shipping experience, said that when the crew gathered on the bridge and sent a distress call, the ship was already listing more than five degrees, the critical angle at which a vessel can be brought back to even keel.
The first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were, Oh said.
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 fell because the vessel was tilting, prompting the first mate to suggest to the captain that he order an evacuation.
About 30 minutes after passengers were told to stay in place, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he was unsure that in the confusion and chaos on the bridge if the order was relayed to the passengers.
Several survivors said that they never heard any evacuation order.
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, he said. The delay in evacuation also likely prevented lifeboats from 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 said many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break. He wanted to escape earlier but had not because of the announcement to stay put.
The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.