South Korean authorities are seeking an arrest warrant for the captain and two of the crew members of a ferry that sank this week.
A combined investigation team of police and prosecutors didn’t reveal the charges it plans to make, said Park Jeang Il, a press official at Mokpo Coast Guard station, where the team is based. Captain Lee Joon Seok, 69, wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the sinking and he had assigned the third navigation officer to steer the vessel, prosecutor Park Jae Uck told reporters.
“He may have returned to the wheelhouse as the ferry began tilting,” the prosecutor said yesterday.
Investigators said they are probing whether the ferry, which is now entirely submerged, turned too quickly or abnormally. They declined to say what announcements were made as the ferry sank on April 16, or whether passengers were told to stay in their cabins. About 10 crew including the captain were being investigated over whether the crew made any mistakes, if they broke any rules related to cargo, and if the ship had any faults, the coast guard said in an earlier statement.
“It’s not as though we didn’t want to help,” crew member Oh Young Seok, 57, said in an interview at a hospital in Mokpo, during a break from police questioning. “We know the rule. The rule is to help the old and the weak, pregnant women, then other passengers, and then we should leave when it appears all have left, and the captain should abandon ship last. But the vessel was tilting so fast we couldn’t reach any lifeboats.”
Coast guard official Park declined to say which two other crew members prosecutors are seeking arrest warrants for.
Two announcements were given at around 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. calling on passengers to don life jackets and stay in their current location because the ferry was tilting, Oh said. The ferry first contacted authorities at 8:55 a.m. on April 16 to request coast guard assistance, according to an audio clip of the exchange issued by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
“Ship has listed a lot. Can’t move. Please come quick,” the ferry told the Vessel Traffic Services in Jeju, its destination.
“I did hear the announcement that we should stay put but I couldn’t,” Choi Chan Yeol, a 57-year-old chef, said in an interview yesterday at a hospital in Mokpo. Choi managed to escape by gripping a cord and pulling himself to the door of the restaurant hall. “It was scary as the ferry was tilting and water was filling up.”
More than 600 divers have been hampered in their attempts to search the sunken vessel due to strong currents and bad visibility. Of the 476 people on board, 28 are known to have died and 174 rescued, leaving 274 people -- mostly students on a high school excursion -- unaccounted for. Authorities yesterday revised the number of people on board and lowered the total rescued from earlier statements.
There have been no survivors found since the day of the sinking, which occurred off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. The chance of finding survivors is “slim,” the coast guard said.
Most of the missing passengers are from a group of 325 students and 14 teachers from Danwon High School, who were on an excursion to Jeju island. The school was closed yesterday, while hundreds of parents whose children remain unaccounted for are packed into a gymnasium on Jindo island, near the site of the sinking.
The school’s vice principal Kang Min Kyu, who was on the ferry but survived, was found hanged behind the gymnasium yesterday, police official Lee Sung Hun told reporters. Lee didn’t say it was a suicide, and no note was found at the scene.
Kim Han Shik, the 72-year-old chief executive officer of the ship’s owner and operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., said his company has committed a “terrible sin.” Kim was speaking at a press briefing at Incheon port April 17 that was broadcast on MBN TV.
‘Time and Tide’
The ferry, named Sewol, or “time and tide” in Korean, listed and capsized in an area of the ocean as shallow as 20 meters (66 feet) in some parts, based on readings from a coast guard vessel used in the rescue operation. The ship was en route from Incheon to Jeju island, popular with tourists.
Bodies found yesterday all had life jackets on and weren’t discovered inside the ferry. They may have been trapped under the vessel, the coast guard said.
“Divers are groping their way because visibility is so poor, 20-30 centimeters at best,” coast guard official Ko Myung Suk told reporters.
The number of divers conducting operations increases every six hours as the current off Korea’s southwest coast slows, according to notice boards at the situation room at Jindo county office. Each slowdown lasts about an hour. Floating cranes have also arrived at the site.
“Pulling the ferry up isn’t going to be easy or smooth,” Kim Jae In, a press officer at the West Regional Headquarters of Korea Coast Guard said in Mokpo. “It’s completely upside down so if we move it wrong, it may tilt or sink further into the mud. This is something we cannot afford as lifesaving is our top priority, although we’re holding onto a slim chance.”
Authorities are considering using an oil tanker to attempt to slow down the current. Rescuers also pumping air into the ferry to “increase the odds of survival,” the security ministry said in a statement.
In addition to the coast guard, 400 personnel from South Korea’s navy, air force and army have been sent to the area to aid the search and rescue. Altogether, 632 divers are working in turns, with 173 ships and 29 helicopters and other aircraft supporting, the security ministry said.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye was met with angry shouts, shrieks and wailing when she visited parents of the missing students in Jindo on April 17.
“We will make every effort to rescue up to the last person,” Park said as she stood on the gymnasium stage, flanked by officials at a meeting shown on YTN TV. Some people yelled insults, while others demanded a live broadcast of rescue operations, a full list of people who were on board, and an increase in the number of divers assigned to the search.
The government has provided live footage of the rescue process for families in Jindo, while the police are taking steps to prevent rumors spreading through social media sites, the security ministry said in a statement. Korean media reports that hoax messages purporting to be from people trapped on the ferry have been posted on the Internet.
The accident may be Korea’s worst since 1970, when the sinking of the ‘Namyoung’ ferry killed 323 people, according to the General Insurance Association of Korea. The ‘Seohae’ ferry sank in 1993, killing 292, according to the Korea Maritime University.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brian Fowler at email@example.com Stuart Biggs, Kevin Costelloe