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Saturday 20 September 2014

Ferry captain arrested as hope of finding missing 274 runs out

Malcolm Moore Jindo

Published 19/04/2014 | 02:30

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South Korean rescue team members try to rescue passengers trapped in the ferry Sewol sinking in the water off South Korea's southern coast near Jindo. Inset: Lee Joon-seok the captain of the sunken ferry, leaves a court which issued his arrest warrant in Mokpo, south of Seoul
Lee Joon-seok, center, the captain of the sunken ferry Sewol, arrives at court after being arrested
Rescue boats sail around the stricken South Korean ferry, Sewol, during their rescue operation.

HOPES have all but vanished of finding any of the 274 missing passengers onboard the doomed South Korean ferry alive.

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The Sewol, carrying 476 passengers and crew, capsized on Wednesday.

It has now emerged that the captain abandoned ship – and then dried out his banknotes.

He was not at the wheel when disaster struck and was among the first to flee the ship, even as he instructed passengers to "stay inside and wait".

When told to prepare for an evacuation by shipping traffic controllers, he dithered for at least half an hour before finally giving the order.

Onshore, he was spotted drying out the wet banknotes in his wallet instead of paying attention to the rescue efforts.

Captain Lee Jun-seok (69) faced a third day of questioning yesterday and could now be charged with manslaughter and a violation of South Korea's Seafarers' Act for not taking all possible measures to prevent harm to passengers.

Both charges carry a maximum prison time of five years.

But Capt Lee, who has barely commented on the disaster, is a hugely experienced and diligent sailor.

He first put to sea in his 20s, according to an interview in 'Jeju Today', a local newspaper, in 2004. As a junior seaman aboard his first ship, he learnt of the power of the sea.

"We capsized near Okinawa in Japan and the Japanese Self-Defence Force rescued me in a helicopter," he told the newspaper. "When I was in the typhoon, I thought I should never go on a ship again. But men have short memories, so after the crisis such thoughts faded and here I am still working on the sea." Two decades of work on freighters and other ocean-going ships followed before he signed up to the ferry service between Incheon, Jeju and his home city of Busan in the early 2000s.

"To normal people, spending 15 hours on a ship seems long, but to me it seems short because I used to spend months on ships," he said.

"I rarely even spend time with my family at the New Year or other special occasions.

"Instead, I feel happy that I help people visit their homes and spend time with their families. I will always be with the ship."

He noted that he never felt relaxed on board.

"The work requires me to sail in the dark and there is always danger, such as small boats which may not be picked up by radar and which may suddenly appear," he said.

Joo Hee Chun, the editor of the 'Gangjin Daily' newspaper, interviewed Capt Lee for a book in 2006 about the waterways around Jeju island.

He said that the captain had "comprehensive knowledge" of the local currents, the islands, and weather conditions.

"He seemed to me to be a rare professional who had wide knowledge and experience in Korea's sea routes," said Mr Joo.

"I had the impression that he was the type of person who lived according to his principles. It is hard to believe he made this accident happen."

Some media reports have said the vessel turned sharply, causing cargo to shift and the ship to list before capsizing.

Marine investigators and the coastguard have said it was too early to pinpoint a cause for the accident and declined to comment on the possibility of the cargo shifting.

The record of the ferry owner was also under investigation and documents were removed from its headquarters in Incheon.

Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd is an unlisted company that operates five ships. It reported an operating loss of $756,000 (€550,000) last year.

According to data from South Korea's Financial Supervisory Service, a government body, Chonghaejin is "indirectly" owned by two sons of the owner of a former shipping company called Semo Marine which went bankrupt in 1997. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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