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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.