Captain left novice at the helm of ferry
Coastguards claim sharp turn by third mate cause of Sewol disaster
The captain of the capsized South Korean ferry was in his bedroom just before the disaster, leaving a 25-year-old novice to steer through the difficult waters around the south of the peninsula for the first time, it emerged yesterday.
“I briefly went to my bedroom,” admitted Lee Joon-seok, captain of the Sewol.
“I was on my way back when the accident happened.”
Capt Lee's decision to step away from the bridge was the first of a chain of calamitous errors that appears likely to have cost more than 300 lives, almost all of whom were teenage students.
No one has been found alive from the ship since just after it sank on Wednesday morning and after more than 100 hours submerged in icy water, the window for anything other than a miracle has firmly closed.
The third mate, Park Hyun-kul, was a novice who had only been at sea for roughly a year, first working on ships sailing to China and joining the Chonghaejin ferry company five months ago.
A senior prosecutor working on the case, Yang Jung-jin, told reporters she had never navigated the cluster of islands on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula before, but had taken the wheel because the ship's delayed departure had thrown the duty roster out of kilter.
While the ferry was travelling at a normal speed of 18 knots, roughly 20mph, Ms Park's sharp left turn has been confirmed by coastguards as the cause of the disaster.
Investigators have raised the possibility that as the ship swerved, the 180 cars and 1,100 tons of shipping containers in its hold fell to one side, causing it to tilt irretrievably.
“If there turns out to be a hole below the waterline, then it may have been a collision, if the hull is intact, it was probably a ship loading issue,” said Chris Ware, a professorat the Greenwich Maritime Institute.
“A speed of 18 knots is not excessive. The ship should be able to turn sharply in case it needs to avoid something, as long as the cargo is properly secured.
“The crew need to make sure the cargo is stored to keep the centre of buoyancy where it is supposed to be.”
Ms Park was silent as she was led to jail in handcuffs, together with Capt Lee, 69, and the 55-year-old coxswain Cho Joon-ki. But Capt Lee paused before reporters, his eyes lowered to the ground under a black hooded jacket, and made a trembling apology.
“I understand there are some things that are my fault. I am sorry I caused the trouble. I apologise to all Koreans and especially I bow my head in apology to the family of the victims,” he said.
He insisted that he had eventually given an order to evacuate the ship, but had initially instructed passengers to remain where they were because rescue ships had not yet reached the Sewol.
“The boat was in an area of very strong current, the temperature of the ocean water was cold and I thought if people left the ferry without proper judgment, if they not were wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” he explained.
“The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats around at that time.”
The three crew members face five charges including negligence and violation of South Korea's Seafarer's Law, which required the captain to take every action possible to protect his passengers and ship.
“There is a special rescue procedure for ocean-bound ships and the captain did not take the right steps to follow it,” said Dae Sik-Hwang, the grizzled head of Korea's Maritime Rescue Association. “All the students wore their life jackets, but nobody thought the ship would tip over so quickly and they were shocked.
“Probably the captain did not think the ship would capsize so quickly and did not look for the evacuation manual for that situation,” he added. By the time the order to abandon the Sewol was finally given, the ship was listing at such a steep angle that its passengers were fatally trapped.
“The initial 15 minutes is when you get people to evacuation stations because that is the critical period of the operation so they can get into dinghies or life boats,” said Prof Ware, noting that the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry had capsized just 20 minutes after leaving Zeebrugge harbour in 1987.
“The captain said he didn't give the order because the rescue boats had not arrived, but it is safer for passengers in a small contained life raft then in a ship leaning at 20 degrees when you cannot get them off or they have to jump.”
Prof Ware said the Sewol, which had recently passed a Korean safety inspection, was on the shipping register and probably complied with international safety laws.
At the site of the submerged ferry, search teams suffered another frustrating day of slow progress with conditions worsening as the day wore on and only a handful of bodies retrieved.
One of South Korea's most famous diving specialists, Lee Jong-in, the head of a company that salvaged the Cheonan warship, thought to have been torpedoed in 2010, heavily criticised the government for continuing to botch the rescue operation. “The navy special forces divers just are not trained for this. They are trained for counter terrorism and war, not for penetrating a wreck and searching for survivors,” he said.
“It should not be a political game, but from the beginning they took the wrong path and thought they could handle it... I think their whole unit should step back and allow professionals to take over.”
Half a mile long and just under three miles wide, the Maenggol waterway is a shortcut through the cluster of islands at the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. But it also boasts a turbulent swirl of fast-moving currents.
On the shore of Jindo island, a statue commemorates Yi Sun-sin, a 16th century Korean admiral who repelled 133 Japanese ships with a fleet of just 13 by manipulating the rapid currents of the local waters.
A five-year girl has emerged as a symbol of the horrors of the government-led operation after not receiving proper medical post-trauma care in the vast Jindo gymnasium, despite having lost all her immediate family.
President Park Geun-hye was seemingly unaware that Kwon Jee-yeon had lost her mother, father and brother when she visited the stadium and touched the girl on the cheek. It later emerged the girl was in such severe shock she could not eat but had not been taken into care.
The South Korean media reported that her six-year-old brother had put a life jacket on her and left her on deck before going to find his father.
“I saw her all by herself, wet and crying hard so I held her and jumped onto a rescue boat,” said Park Hojin, a 16-year-old student at Danwon high school. “I held her until the boat arrived at the harbour and handed her to a rescue team,” he added.
The girl was moving with her brother, her 51-year-old Korean father and her 29-year-old Vietnamese mother to Jeju island, where the family planned to live on a farm.