Divers Pull First Bodies From Korea Ferry to Put Toll at 36

Rescue Boats Sail near Sewol Ferry
Rescue boats sail near Sewol, a 6,825-ton passenger ship owned by Chonghaejin Marine Co., 20 kilometers off of Jindo, April 16, 2014. Source: Yonhap News via Bloomberg

Divers retrieved the first bodies from a cabin of the South Korea ferryboat that sank and killed at least 36 people last week as prosecutors revealed that a third-ranked officer was at the vessel’s helm attempting to navigate heavy currents when the tragedy occurred.

A third-deck cabin window was broken by divers to retrieve the three bodies, CNN reported, citing comments today from South Korea’s coast guard. As additional dives were conducted, medical staff on Jindo island, where parents of missing passengers assembled, were collecting DNA samples, CNN said.

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 South Korea’s southwestern coast.

Park, Captain Lee Joon Seok and a helmsman with the last name of Cho face charges of abandoning the ship and its passengers, prosecutor Lee Bong Chang said by phone. All three are being held at the Mokpo Coast Guard Station, he said.

The captain and two crew members “didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” prosecutor Lee said. “They should have also sailed more carefully without making sharp turns,” he said, adding that the investigation is still at an early stage.

Captain Lee, 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 face three charges, including accidental homicide and violation of maritime laws.

Safety Inspections

The coast guard raided the office of the ferry’s owner Chonghaejin Marine Co. in Incheon on April 17, said another prosecutor, Yang Joong Jin. 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, Yang said. A full-scale probe will be conducted once the ferry is salvaged, he said.

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.

No Rescue Boats

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, 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.

Of the 476 people on board, 36 are known to have died and 174 rescued, leaving 266 missing. The largest number of passengers were the 339 Danwon High School students and their teachers on an excursion to Jeju island.

Investigators are probing whether the ferry, which is now entirely submerged, turned too quickly or abnormally. They have declined to say whether passengers received an order to evacuate as the vessel listed.

Strong Currents

“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.”

Live coast guard footage of the rescue operation yesterday showed rough seas, rain and fog in the area of the ferry, which is now marked with beige floating buoys after its bow slipped under the sea surface on April 18.

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 crew members.

First Time Steering

The ferry’s route through the ‘Maeng Gol Soo Do,’ a waterway known for strong currents, wasn’t unusual for a vessel traveling between Incheon and Jeju, though the third-ranked officer was steering in it for the first time, prosecutor Yang told reporters in Mokpo.

“It’s not as though we didn’t want to help,” Oh said 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.”

Investigators are unlikely to seek arrests for other crew members, though they will continue to be questioned, Yang 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 on Jeju island, its destination.

Diving Operations

“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 thwarted in their attempts to search the sunken vessel due to strong currents and poor visibility. No survivors have been found since the day of the sinking.

Divers have been able to insert a guide line into the ferry that will help them enter the ship, coast guard official Ko Myung Suk told reporters. A diver yesterday had seen the three bodies through a cabin window before currents forced him back to the surface, Ko said.

Vice Principal

In addition to the coast guard, personnel from South Korea’s navy, air force and army are aiding the search and rescue, with 176 vessels and 28 helicopters and other aircraft supporting their efforts, the coast guard said.

Oil has also begun to leak from the ferry and the coast guard is using 23 vessels to try to contain it, the coast guard said in a phone text message.

Parents of the 325 missing Danwon High School students remain 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 on April 18, police official Lee Sung Hun told reporters.

The ferry 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. Floating cranes are standing by to try to lift the ferry.

“We’re operating under the belief that there are still survivors, and we will lift the boat to the surface only after the search is over and we have approval of family members,” Ko Myung Suk of the coast guard’s equipment and technology bureau said in a televised briefing.