Sunken ferry once plied Japan’s seas

No problems reported before sale; 287 of 475 passengers still missing

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI, AP, Reuters

The ferry that sank off South Korea on Wednesday was once operated by a Japanese firm to link remote southwestern islands, the former operator said Thursday.

The 6,825-ton ferry, now called Sewol, experienced no problems while operating in Japan as the Naminoue from June 1994 to September 2012, according to A-Line Ferry Co., based in Amami, Kagoshima Prefecture.

After being sold to South Korea in October 2012, the vessel went into service again in March 2013 following six months of maintenance. Many Japanese vessels have been sold to other Asian countries after operating here for 15 to 20 years.

The ferry sank off the south coast of South Korea with the loss of at least nine lives. Of the 475 passengers, 287 remained missing. A total of 325 high school students were on board, traveling with their teachers to the island resort of Jeju.

Passengers were repeatedly told to stay put when the ferry first ran into trouble, and the captain reportedly did not order an evacuation until about 30 minutes later.

The captain was facing a criminal investigation on Thursday, an official said, amid reports that he was one of the first people to jump to safety as the vessel began sinking.

Distraught relatives gathered in a gymnasium on nearby Jindo island. When South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won visited the gym Thursday morning, he was jostled and shouted at, and water bottles were thrown.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking at a forum in Tokyo on Thursday, said his thoughts were with those caught up in the tragedy.