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SKorea Ferry Captain, Crew Arrested    04/19 09:31

   The captain of the ferry that sank off South Korea, leaving more than 300 
missing or dead, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and 
abandoning people in need. Two crew members also were taken into custody, 
including a rookie third mate who a prosecutor said was steering in challenging 
waters unfamiliar to her when the accident occurred.

   MOKPO, South Korea (AP) -- The captain of the ferry that sank off South 
Korea, leaving more than 300 missing or dead, was arrested Saturday on 
suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Two crew members also 
were 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 32 when three bodies were found in the 
murky water near the ferry, said coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in. Divers know 
at least some bodies remain inside the vessel, but they have been unable to get 
inside.

   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 Saturday 
morning as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed. But 
he defended his much-criticized 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) 
judgment, 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 Wednesday with 476 people 
aboard, most of them students on holiday from a single high school. About 270 
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 told The Associated Press that they never heard any 
evacuation order.

   Divers fighting strong currents and rain have been unable to get inside the 
ferry. A civilian diver saw three bodies inside the ship Saturday but was 
unable to break the windows, said Kwon Yong-deok, a coast guard official. 
Hundreds of civilian, government and military divers were involved in the 
search Saturday.

   Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin told reporters that the third mate was 
steering the ship Wednesday morning 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.

   Yang said the third mate has six months of experience, and hadn't 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, 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.

   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 Yang, the senior prosecutor.

   Yang 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 Lee among the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.

   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's not clear why the two crew members made the sharp turn, 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.

   Also on Saturday, angry relatives of missing passengers expressed outrage at 
officials who were holding a briefing on the disaster in a gymnasium on Jindo 
island where hundreds of family members are waiting for word about their loved 
ones. A few dozen relatives surged toward the stage, hurling rapid-fire 
questions at the officials. One man tried to choke a coast guard lieutenant and 
punch a maritime policeman, but missed.

   "I know this has been a very difficult situation," said Lee Jong-eui, a 
businessman whose 17-year-old nephew, Nam Hyun-chul, is among the missing. "But 
aren't people supposed to have faith in the government? The government should 
have hurried up and have done something, but they just wasted four days, which 
led to this point. I think this is more like a man-made disaster."

   The briefing began with a family member presenting video footage shot by a 
diver using a head-mounted camera Friday night. The only sounds that could be 
heard in the gym were the diver's breathing as he gripped a rope with gloved 
hands and used a flashlight to illuminate the murky water. The diver could be 
seen pulling the rope as he advanced toward the sunken ship. Dust and sediment 
washed around in various directions, testifying to the rapid changes in sea 
current. Glimpses of the ferry could be seen --- metal railings and a small 
window.

   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 323 students 
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 9 a.m. 
Wednesday.

   A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange shows that an official at the 
Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center recommended evacuation just five minutes 
after the Sewol's distress call. But helmsman Oh told the AP that it took 30 
minutes for the captain to give the evacuation order as the boat listed.

   With only 174 known survivors and the chances of survival increasingly slim, 
it is 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 
country's last major ferry disaster was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.

   The last bit of the ferry that had been above water --- the dark blue keel 
--- disappeared below the surface Friday night. Navy divers attached underwater 
air bags to the ferry to prevent it from sinking deeper, the Defense Ministry 
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 inside because the lifting could endanger any 
survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, 
citing department rules.

   Coast guard official Ko Myung-seok said 176 ships and 28 planes were 
mobilized to search the area around the sunken ship Saturday, and that more 
than 650 divers were trying to search the interior of the ship. The coast guard 
also said a thin layer of oil was visible near the area where the ferry sank; 
about two dozen vessels were summoned to contain the spill.


(KA)


 
 
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