The captain of a sunken South Korean ferry was arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, as investigators looked into whether his evacuation order came too late to save lives. Two crew members were also arrested, a prosecutor said.
The prosecutor said a third mate steering a South Korean ferry at the time of the accident was navigating those waters for the first time.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin told reporters that the 25-year-old mate was steering the ship as it passed through an area with lots of islands clustered close together and fast currents.
Yang said that another mate usually took controls through the area. But because heavy fog caused a departure delay, the third mate was steering the ship
Wednesday's disaster left more than 270 people missing and at least 32 people dead.
The captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, and two of his crew were taken into police custody in the early hours of the morning, charged with negligence and failing to secure the safety of passengers in violation of maritime law. It was not yet clear if the third mate was one of those arrested
Standing in a hooded raincoat with his head bowed during the police arraignment, Lee was asked by TV reporters why passengers had been ordered to remain in their seats and cabins for more than 40 minutes after the ferry first sent a distress signal just before 9am on Wednesday.
“The currents were very strong and 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 without wearing lifejackets.
“It would have been the same even if they did wear lifejackets,” he said.
As the last bit of the sunken ferry’s hull slipped Friday beneath the murky water off southern South Korea, there was a new victim: a vice-principal of the high school whose students were among the passengers was found hanged, an apparent suicide.
Kang Min-gyu, 52, had been missing since Thursday. He appeared to have hanged himself with his belt from a tree outside a gym in the port city of Jindo where relatives of the people missing on the ship, mostly children from the school, were gathered.
He was rescued from the ferry after it capsized on Wednesday.
Reports said police found a suicide note in Kang's wallet that cited his sense of guilt at having survived. "Surviving alone is too painful … I take full responsibility. I pushed ahead with the school trip," Yonhap quoted the note as saying. He asked that his body be cremated and the ashes scattered where the ferry went down.
The Sewol had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 476 people aboard, including 323 students from Danwon High School in Ansan. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore a little before 9am on Wednesday.
Divers are fighting strong tides and murky waters to get to the sunken ship, but the likelihood of finding any of the missing alive is slim. The coast guard said divers began pumping air into the ship to try to sustain any survivors.
Investigations into the sinking focused on the sharp turn the ferry took just before it began listing and on the possibility that a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives.
Lee, the captain of the ferry, faces five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Yang said earlier that Lee was not on the bridge when the ferry was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together, something he said is required by law so the captain can help a mate make a turn. The captain also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, he said.
“The captain escaped before the passengers,” Yang said.
Watch: We were told to stay in our cabins: ferry disaster survivor
Two crew members on the bridge of the ferry — a 25-year-old woman and a 55-year-old helmsman — also failed to reduce speed near the islands and conducted a sharp turn, Yang said. They also did not carry out necessary measures to save lives, he said.
At the high school in Ansan, an industrial town near Seoul, many friends and family of the missing gathered in sombre silence, with occasional sounds of sobbing breaking the quiet.
"When I first received the call telling me the news, at that time I still had hope," said Cho Kyung-mi, who was waiting for news of her missing 16-year-old nephew at the school. "And now it's all gone."
With only 174 survivors from the 476 aboard and the chances of survival becoming slimmer by the hour, it was shaping up to be one of South Korea’s worst disasters, made all the more heartbreaking by the likely loss of so many young people, aged 16 or 17.
The toll rose to 32 after three more bodies were recovered on Saturday, authorities said.
The country’s last major ferry disaster was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.
A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange and interviews with survivors showed the captain delayed the evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official told the ship it might have to evacuate.
The recommendation by the unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Centre came at 9am, just five minutes after a distress call by the Sewol. In the exchange, the Sewol crew member says: “Currently the body of the ship has listed to the left. The containers have listed as well.”
The Jeju VTS officer responds: “OK. Any loss of human life or injuries?” The ship’s answer is: “It’s impossible to check right now. The body of the ship has tilted, and it’s impossible to move.”
The VTS officer then says: “Yes, OK. Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship.”
“It’s hard for people to move,” replies the crew member on the radio.
Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry, said the first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were as the crew tried to control the ship.
About 30 minutes later, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn’t sure if, in the confusion and chaos on the bridge, the order was relayed to the passengers. Several survivors said that they never heard any evacuation order.
Three vessels with cranes have arrived at the accident site to prepare to salvage the ferry. But they will not hoist the ship before getting approval from family members of those still believed inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.