Prosecutors investigating South Korea’s worst maritime disaster in four decades are questioning the ‘Sewol’ ferry operator’s chief executive officer over the incident that left more than 300 dead or missing.
Kim Han Shik, the head of Chonghaejin Marine Co., didn’t answer reporters’ questions as he entered the prosecutors’ offices in Incheon today, supported by two aides. The ferry’s crew called the company seven times before the ferry capsized, prosecutor Ahn Sang Don told reporters in Mokpo today, where the main investigation team is based.
All 15 crew members involved in navigating the Sewol survived the sinking. While all have been arrested, public anger has grown over their abandonment of hundreds of passengers, the majority students from the same school, and what major newspapers have described as government mishandling of the rescue effort. Prime Minister Chung Hong Won resigned as polls showed support for President Park Geun Hye slipping.
Park visited a memorial alter close to the Danwon High School in Ansan, near Seoul, to offer her condolences today, Yoo Myung Hee, a spokeswoman at the presidential office, said by phone. A group of 339 students and teachers from Danwon were on a four-day field trip to Jeju island; 250 students are among the 302 dead and missing from the sunken vessel.
“I intend to make this country safe, I’m going to make sure these victims’ sacrifice wasn’t in vain by eliminating deep-rooted malpractice,” Park said, according to a pool report released by the presidential Blue House.
Away from Bridge
Captain Lee Joon Seok, 68, who wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the incident, the third mate named Park, who was steering the vessel, and a helmsman Cho, who was with Park, face a life sentence on charges including homicide through abandonment and homicide through occupational negligence, prosecutors said yesterday.
Homicide through abandonment carries a prison term of three years or more and a life sentence is possible under Korean law.
Coast guard footage shows the captain boarding one of the first rescue boats to arrive as the ferry was still listing, dressed in shorts and no shoes, with other crew members also boarding not wearing their uniforms. YTN TV identified the crew.
“We couldn’t ask people whether they’re crew or passengers because the situation was too urgent,” Kim Kyung Il, the captain of the coast guard rescue boat, said in an interview broadcast on YTN. “We didn’t know who was a crew member and who was passenger.”
President Park called the actions of the ferry’s crew in abandoning passengers on board “like murder.”
Investigators have said they are probing whether the ferry turned too quickly or abnormally, and whether it was carrying too much cargo, when it listed and sank in an area known for strong currents off the southwest corner of the Korean peninsula. Justice Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn yesterday pledged an overhaul of shipping industry regulations.
Altogether twelve Chonghaejin Marine officials are under investigation, prosecutor Ahn said yesterday.
Three employees at the Korea Shipping Association, one floor above Chonghaejin’s office in Incheon, are being questioned by prosecutors after they allegedly destroyed documents ahead of a raid, according to an official who declined to give her name to a Bloomberg News reporter at the office today. The incident at the association, which oversees ferry operators, was earlier reported by Yonhap News.
Prosecutors also raided Mokpo Coast Guard yesterday to investigate whether it took immediate action after it received a distress call from a student on the ferry that was transferred via emergency services, said Kim Jae In, a senior inspector at Korea Coast Guard’s West Regional Headquarters. The emergency service control center was also raided.
The coast guard is still looking at why only one of the 46 lifeboats on the Sewol was properly deployed and why others didn’t auto-inflate when they hit the water, Kim said.
“There are too many irregularities and malpractices in parts of society that have been with us for too long, and I hope those are corrected so that accidents like this will not happen again,” Prime Minister Chung said in a televised briefing to announce his resignation.
Victims’ relatives shouted and threw water bottles at Chung, who will remain in office until the government’s response has concluded, as he visited them at a gymnasium in Jindo, near the site of the ferry sinking, hours after the incident on April 16.
President Park’s approval rating slipped to 57 percent as of April 25, down from 71 percent on April 18, the day after she visited victims’ relatives near the site of the sinking, according to Seoul-based polling company Realmeter. Support for Park’s ruling New Frontier or Saenuri Party has also fallen, by 4.7 percentage points to 48.7 percent. The opposition’s approval rate rose to 28.1 percent from 26.9 percent.
South Korea holds metropolitan, provincial and municipal elections in June, including the capital Seoul.
“The government was running about in confusion after the accident, making families of the missing passengers more angry,” said an editorial today in the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper, one of the country’s major dailies. “A lack of preparation left each department scrambling -- the security ministry, marine ministry, navy and coast guard -- at the site of Sewol sinking.”
Across the country, spring festivals and concerts have been canceled in a period of national mourning over the incident, Korea’s worst maritime disaster since the ‘Namyoung’ ferry sank in 1970, killing 323.
Almost 180,000 people have visited the memorial altar in Ansan to offer their condolences, the Gyeonggi provincial government said yesterday. Mourners receive a yellow ribbon that reads “one little movement will bring big miracles” from volunteers. Each visitor puts a white chrysanthemum in front of rows of photographs of the deceased.
“This neighborhood will never be the same again,” said the owner of a snack shop about 100 meters from the school that was popular with students, who identified herself only as Kim. “I just wish they recover the bodies as soon as possible. Finding all the children and returning them to their families is the only way to find a little bit of peace.”
Next door to Kim’s shop, a sign on a small dry cleaners reads “closed until tomorrow.” The owner is the mother of a missing student. She left on April 16 to go to Jindo, near the site of the sinking, thinking her son had been rescued and would be coming home the next day. She’s still there, Kim said.
Divers have been hampered by low visibility and strong currents as they search the submerged 6,825-ton, five-deck vessel. They’ve searched 38 of the 64 cabins in which passengers may have stayed, coast guard official Ko Myung Suk said in a televised briefing today.
The official death toll of 193 will probably rise to 302, as no survivors have been found since 174 of the 476 passengers and crew were rescued on the day of the sinking.
At the Jindo gymnasium last night, more than 100 victims’ relatives were lying or sitting on the floor with blankets while volunteers offer food and drinks outside. The walls along the entrance are covered with messages of hope for the return of the missing students.
“I wish I had you in my arms more often,” said one. “I’m sorry, and thank you. I miss you, my son.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stuart Biggs at email@example.com Sungwoo Park