South Korean prosecutors charged the captain and three crew members of the ferry that sank last month with homicide, as divers trying to retrieve remaining victims faced collapsing structures inside the ship.
“They had no willingness to save the passengers,” prosecutor Yang Joong Jin said today by phone. “They consciously abandoned the passengers.”
Captain Lee Joon Seok and three others could face the death penalty if convicted, prosecutor Lee Bong Chang said. The four were among 15 crew who abandoned the Sewol on April 16 without giving an evacuation order as the ferry sank off South Korea’s southwestern coast. The other 11 crew members will also face trial on a range of charges, he said.
The nation’s worst maritime disaster in more than four decades left 284 people dead and 20 missing. One body was retrieved early today from the opening of a collapsed structure inside the Sewol, Ko Myung Suk, a spokesman for the rescue team, said at a briefing.
Divers have battled poor visibility and strong currents. On May 6, a civilian diver died in the hospital after being taken out of the water unconscious.
“The possibility of passages collapsing is increasing as partitions are weakening,” Kim Suk Kyoon, Commissioner of the Coast Guard, said today in an e-mailed statement.
No survivors have been found since 172 of the 476 passengers and crew were first rescued after the ship sank en route to the resort island of Jeju. It was carrying 325 students from a high school near Seoul on an excursion. Only 75 of the students survived.
Criticism of the government’s handling of the disaster has taken President Park Geun Hye’s approval rating down to 46 percent, the lowest in a year, according to Gallup Korea. Park apologized on April 29 and plans to issue another statement, according to her office. In a meeting with aides on April 21, she called the actions of the ferry’s crew in abandoning passengers “like murder.”
More than 1.8 million mourners have visited memorials set up across the country to pay respect to the victims, according to an e-mailed government statement. Park on April 29 visited an altar in Ansan where the high school is.
Prosecutors are also investigating ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., its executives, the Korea Shipping Association that oversees ferry operators, and the coast guard. Prosecutor Lee declined to say whether overloading of cargo led to the sinking of the five-deck ship.
The Financial Supervisory Service has allocated 156 officials to inspect Chonghaejin, its affiliates and banks and insurance companies that have had dealings with the group, the watchdog said today in an e-mailed statement.
The disaster was caused in part by Chonghaejin and its affiliates diverting funds “elsewhere” that should have been in invested in ship safety and personnel management on board, the Incheon Prosecutors’ Office said in an e-mailed statement.
Consumer spending in the country slowed after the sinking, with the disaster having a negative effect on service industries, Finance Minister Hyun Oh Seok said on May 6.