South Korea Ferry Captain Is Behind Bars, Yonhap Reports

South Korean Ferry
A giant offshore crane arrives near to the buoys installed to mark the postion of the sunken ferry off the coast of Jindo Island on April 18, 2014 in Jindo-gun, South Korea. Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The captain of a South Korean ferry that sank last week has been jailed and is facing five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, according to Yonhap News.

Captain Lee Joon Seok was arrested after warrants were issued for him and two crew members, Yonhap said today. Twenty-nine people died and more than 270 others remain unaccounted for after the April 16 capsizing, the news agency said.

Lee, 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 yesterday. Lee is accused of having escaped before passengers when the 6,825-ton vessel slowly sank, according to Yonhap.

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, or whether passengers were told to stay in their cabins.

About 10 crew including the captain were being investigated over whether mistakes were made, if they broke any rules related to cargo and if the ship had any faults, the coast guard said in a 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.”

Two Announcements

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 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, at least 28 were known to have died and 174 rescued, leaving 274 people -- mostly students on a high school excursion -- unaccounted for.

Fading Hopes

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 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.

‘Upside Down’

“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 are 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.

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