Divers retrieved more bodies from a South Korean ferryboat that sank earlier this week, as the team investigating the incident focused on why the vessel made a sharp turn prior to listing.
The ship’s female third mate, surnamed Park, was arrested yesterday along with its captain and a helmsman as the search for the hundreds of missing, mostly high school students, yielded no survivors off the nation’s southwestern coast. Park hasn’t given a clear answer as to why the ship veered so sharply, prosecutor Yang Joong Jin told reporters in Mokpo today.
Park was attempting to steer the ship through a waterway known for rough currents called Maeng Gol Soo Ro for the first time, investigators have said.
As divers continue their search for survivors, medical staff on Jindo island, where parents of missing passengers assembled, were collecting DNA samples. More guide lines into the ferry are aiding the search, coast guard official Ko Myung Suk said at a televised briefing. Rescuers have ruled out cutting parts of the ship to gain access because it would be too dangerous for possible survivors trapped inside, maritime ministry official Park Seung Gee said.
Of the 476 people on board, 56 are known to have died and 174 were rescued, leaving 246 missing. The largest group of passengers were the 339 Danwon High School students and their teachers on an excursion to Jeju island.
Captain Lee Joon Seok, 69, wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the incident, and faces five charges including negligence of duty and accidental homicide. Park and Cho, a helmsman who was on the bridge with Park, face three charges, including accidental homicide and violation of maritime laws.
The captain and two crew members “didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” a second prosecutor, Lee Bong Chang, said yesterday. “They should have also sailed more carefully without making sharp turns.”
Park has fainted during questioning, while the investigation is being extended to 10 other crew members on board, some of whom have reported not receiving safety training, prosecutor Yang said today.
Investigators have so far focused on the crew members’ actions up to the incident, with less attention so far given to what they did afterward, Yang said. The joint coast guard and prosecution team is also analyzing phone messages sent by people on the vessel and will request access from Kakao Corp. to messages sent on its KakaoTalk application, he said.
The coast guard raided the office of the ferry’s owner Chonghaejin Marine Co. in Incheon on April 17, said Yang. No company officials have been summoned for questioning yet, he said. The company didn’t answer two phone calls seeking comment.
Kim Han Shik, the chief executive officer of Chonghaejin Marine, said his company had committed a “terrible sin.” Kim was speaking at a press briefing at Incheon port on April 17 that was broadcast on MBN TV.
Investigators are also looking into modifications made to expand passenger and cargo capacity on the 20-year-old ship. A full-scale probe will be conducted once the ferry is salvaged, Yang said yesterday.
The ferry, named Sewol, or “Time and Tide” in Korean, had passed safety inspections for the expansion work at a check between October 2012 and February 2013, said an official from the Korean Register of Shipping, which conducted the test. The official asked not to be identified, citing company policy.
Chonghaejin Marine had modified the vessel to carry an additional 117 passengers, expanding the total capacity including crew to 956 people, the Korean Register official said.
The vessel was built by Japan’s Hayashikane Dockyard Co. in 1994 and had no accidents during 18 years of operation in Japan, according to Takaharu Miyazono, a spokesman for A-Line, the previous owner. It sold the ferry to the Korean company in October 2012, Miyazono said.
Investigators have declined to say whether passengers received an order to evacuate as the vessel listed.
“The announcements to stay on the vessel were issued because rescue boats hadn’t yet arrived,” Lee, the captain, told reporters in Mokpo as he was taken into custody, flanked by the two crew members. The comments were broadcast on YTN TV.
“The currents were extremely fast. The water was cold,” he said. “Even if life jackets were worn, if we abandon the ship without a clear judgment you can be dragged far away. I judged that there would be many complications.”
The ferry left Incheon, near Seoul, around 9 p.m. local time on April 15, after fog delayed the departure by more than two hours, according to an Incheon port official. The ship was en route to Jeju island, a popular tourist resort in the south, in a trip that typically takes about 14 hours.
At around 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. the next day, two announcements called on passengers to don life jackets and stay in their current location because the ferry was tilting, crew member Oh Young Seok said in an April 18 interview at a hospital in Mokpo. Oh, 57, wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the incident and was rescued on the same boat as eight other crew members.
The ferry’s route through the Maeng Gol Soo Do wasn’t unusual for a vessel traveling between Incheon and Jeju, prosecutor Yang said yesterday.
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 on Jeju island, its destination.
Its first contact with VTS on Jindo, closest to where the ferry sank, came at 9:07 a.m., according to a transcript released by the coast guard today. At 9:12 a.m., Jindo VTS asked if people are in lifeboats.
“No, not yet. We can’t move because the ship is tilted,” the Sewol crew member replied.