Captain arrested as bodies found
Published 19/04/2014 | 04:12
The captain of the ferry that sank off South Korea, leaving more than 300 missing or dead, has been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need.
Two crew members were also taken into custody, including a rookie third mate who a prosecutor said was steering in challenging waters unfamiliar to her when the accident occurred.
The number of confirmed dead rose to 36 after divers broke a window in the submerged ferry and retrieved three more bodies, Kim Kwang-hyun, a coastguard official, said. These were apparently the first bodies recovered from inside the ferry since it sank on Wednesday.
Mr Kim said he had no information about whether the divers actually entered the submerged ferry to pull out the bodies or whether they are now able to search the rest of the ship for bodies. Strong currents and rain have prevented divers from searching inside the ferry until now.
Hundreds of civilian, government and military divers are involved in the search. A civilian diver saw three bodies inside the ship today but was unable to break the windows, said another coastguard official, Kwon Yong-deok. It was not known whether these were the same bodies recovered later.
Earlier, four bodies were discovered in the murky waters near the ferry, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
The ferry's captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested along with one of the Sewol's 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 this morning as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed. But he defended his much-criticised decision to wait about 30 minutes before ordering an evacuation.
"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) judgement, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties," Lee 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, most of them students on holiday from a single high school. About 265 people are still missing, and most are believed to be trapped inside the 6,852-ton vessel.
By the time the evacuation order was issued, the ship was listing at too steep an angle for many people to escape the tight hallways and stairs inside. Several survivors have said they never heard any evacuation order.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin told reporters that the third mate was steering the ship as it passed through an area with lots of islands clustered close together and fast currents. According to investigators, the accident came at a point where the ship had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.
Mr Yang said the third mate has six months of experience, and had not steered in the area before because another mate usually handles those duties. She took the wheel this time because heavy fog caused a departure delay, Mr 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," Mr Cho said.
Lee has four decades of experience at sea. He had been captaining ferries for 10 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 10 days a month, helmsman Oh Yong-seok said.
Lee 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, Lee faces five charges, including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, and 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 tough-to-navigate areas, said Mr Yang, the senior prosecutor.
Mr Yang said Lee also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, saying: "The captain escaped before the passengers." Video aired by Yonhap showed Lee among the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.
Mr Yang said 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, Mr Yang said. He said prosecutors 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 down the ferry at the time.
Prosecutors will have 10 days to decide whether to indict the captain and crew, but can request a 10-day extension from the court.
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