South Korea ferry disaster

Captain of sunken South Korean ferry defends slow evacuation

Decision to hold back on evacuation order was proper, says arrested officer; families of missing children give DNA to help identifications

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:37am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 8:47am

The arrested captain of the South Korean ferry that capsized four days ago with 476 people on board defended his decision to delay its evacuation, as relatives of some of the more than 200 missing children offered DNA swabs to help identify the dead.

Investigators arrested Lee Joon-seok and two of his crew early on Friday. All three have been criticised for abandoning hundreds of passengers trapped in the Sewol, as they made their own escape.

Lee was charged with negligence and failing to secure the safety of passengers in violation of maritime law.

Thirty-two people have been confirmed dead in the disaster, but 270 are still missing - most of them children on a high-school holiday trip.

Even if my son were alive, I don't seen how he could ever be reached in time
Han Mi-ok, mother

Captain Lee was arraigned along with the two officers in charge of the bridge at the time.

Dressed in dark raincoats with their hoods pulled up, the three kept their heads bowed as they were paraded before TV cameras in a police station.

Questioned as to why passengers had been ordered not to move for more than 40 minutes after the ship first foundered, Lee said it was a safety measure.

"At the time a rescue ship had not arrived. There were also no fishing boats around for rescuers, or other ships to help," Lee said.

"The currents were very strong and the water was cold at that time in the area.

"I thought that passengers would be swept far away and fall into trouble if they evacuated thoughtlessly," he added.

Experts have suggested many more people might have escaped if they had moved to evacuation points before the ship listed sharply and water started flooding in.

Initial questioning of the captain has focused on what actually caused the ferry to sink.

Tracking data from the Maritime Ministry showed the vessel made a sharp turn just before sending its first distress signal.

Some experts believe a tight turn could have dislodged the heavy cargo manifest - including more than 150 vehicles - and destabilised the vessel, causing it to list heavily and then capsize.

Lee confirmed he was not at the helm when the ship ran into trouble. The Sewol was being steered by a 55-year-old helmsman identified by his surname Jo, under the supervision of the third officer.

"It may have partly been my fault," Jo said at the arraignment. "But the steering gear rotated unusually fast."

For those relatives ready to accept the worst outcome, the coastguard had set up a tent near the gymnasium on Jindo island to take DNA tests to facilitate eventual identification of recovered bodies.

Inside the tent, two tables were manned by four men from the South Korean coastguard's crime-scene investigation unit.

Their task was to take DNA samples from any relatives willing to provide them.

"Up until yesterday, I was still hanging on to some hope," said Han Mi-ok, whose teenage son Song Kang-hyun was listed as missing.

"But today I'm bracing myself for the worst. Even if my son were alive, I don't seen how he could ever be reached in time," she said before entering the tent to providing a sample.

Han was accompanied by her teenage daughter, who had not gone to the same Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul, that her brother and the other students who were on the Sewol attended.

"I suppose I should be grateful for that," Han said. "If they had been in the same school I might have lost them both."