THE captain of the ferry that sank off South Korea, leaving more than 300 missing or dead, was in custody yesterday after being arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning hundreds of passengers.
Two crew members were also being held, including an inexperienced third mate, who a prosecutor said was steering in challenging waters unfamiliar to her when the accident occurred.
The confirmed dead rose to 36 when divers retrieved three bodies from inside the ferry, said coastguard spokesman Kim Kwang-hyun, though 267 people are still missing.
Divers broke a window to recover the bodies – the first pulled out of the ferry Sewol since it sank on Wednesday. Officials said the recovery effort may take two months.
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested along with one of three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third mate, prosecutors said.
“I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims,” Lee told reporters early yesterday as he left the Mokpo branch of Gwangju district court for jail.
Nonetheless, he defended his much-criticised decision to wait about 30 minutes before ordering passengers and crew to abandon ship.
“At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without [proper] judgment, if they were not wearing a life-jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” he said. “The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time.”
The Sewol sank off South Korea’s southern coast on Wednesday with 476 people aboard, mostly teenage pupils on holiday from a secondary school. Most of those still missing are believed to be trapped inside the capsized vessel.
By the time the evacuation order was issued, the ship was listing too much for many people to escape its narrow corridors and stairways. Several survivors said they never heard an order to abandon ship.
Divers fighting strong currents and rain have been unable to get into the ferry. A civilian diver saw three bodies inside yesterday, but was unable to break the porthole windows to gain access. Hundreds of civilian, government and military divers were involved in the search yesterday.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said the third mate was steering the ship as it passed through an area with lots of islands clustered close together and fast currents.
Investigators said the accident came at a point where the ship had to make a turn, and investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn so sharp that it caused the ship to topple.
Yang said the third mate had only six months’ experience, and had not steered in the area before because another mate usually handled those duties.
She took the wheel this time because heavy fog caused a departure delay, Yang said, adding that investigators do not know whether the ship was going faster than usual.
Helmsman Park Kyung-nam identified the third mate as Park Han-kyul. The helmsman who was arrested, 55-year-old Cho Joon-ki, spoke to reporters outside court and accepted some responsibility.
“There was a mistake on my part as well, but the steering had been turned much more than usual,” Cho said.
The captain has four decades of experience at sea. He had been captaining ferries for ten years by the time he was interviewed by the Jeju Today website in 2004, and said he had sailed on ocean freighters for 20 years before that. But he was not the Sewol’s main captain, and worked on the ship about ten days a month, helmsman Oh Yong-seok said.
The captain was not on the bridge when the ship began to list. “I gave instructions on the route, then briefly went to the bedroom when it happened,” he told reporters.
According to the court, he faces five charges, including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law. The two other crew members each face three related charges.
Lee was required by law to be on the bridge helping his crew when the ferry passed through areas known to be difficult to navigate.
The prosecutor said Lee also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, saying: “The captain escaped before the passengers.”
Video aired by Yonhap news agency showed the captain among the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.
It is claimed that the two crew members arrested failed to reduce speed near the islands and failed to carry out necessary measures to save lives. It is not clear why the two crew members made the sharp turn.
The prosecutor said his team would continue to look into whether something other than the turn could have made the ferry sink, but he added that there were no strong waves that could have knocked over the ferry at the time of the sinking.
The Sewol left the north-west port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 323 pupils from Danwon High School in Ansan among its passengers.
It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore a little before 9am on Wednesday.
A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange shows that an official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Centre recommended evacuation just five minutes after the Sewol’s distress call.
However, helmsman Oh said that it took 30 minutes for the captain to give the evacuation order as the boat listed.
The last section of the ferry that had been above water – the dark blue keel – disappeared below the surface on Friday night.
Navy divers attached underwater airbags to the ferry to prevent it from sinking further, a defence ministry spokesman said.
Three vessels with cranes 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 trapped inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with coast guard regulations.
There are only 174 known survivors and the chances of survival are increasingly slim. Some relatives offered DNA swabs yesterday to help identify the dead as the rescue turned into a mission to recover the bodies of those on board.
Most of the pupils now believed to have drowned were aged 16 or 17, turning the accident into a national tragedy.