MOKPO/JINDO, SOUTH KOREA – The captain of the ferry that sank off South Korea on Wednesday, leaving more than 300 dead or missing, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need.
Two crew members also were taken into custody, including a mate who a prosecutor said was steering in challenging waters unfamiliar to her when the accident occurred.
Prosecutors said the Sewol’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested Saturday along with helmsman Cho Joon-ki, 55, and the ship’s 25-year-old third mate. Another helmsman, Park Kyung-nam, identified the mate as Park Han-kyul.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said the third mate was steering the ship Wednesday morning as it passed through an area with many islands clustered close together and fast currents. Investigators said the accident came at a point where the ship had to make a turn, and prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.
Yang said the third mate had not steered in the area before because another mate usually handles those duties, but she took the wheel this time because heavy fog caused a departure delay. Yang said investigators do not know whether the ship was going faster than usual.
So far 29 bodies have been recovered since Wednesday’s disaster off South Korea’s southwest coast. More than 270 people are still missing, and most are believed to be trapped inside the 6,852-ton vessel.
Divers fighting strong currents and rain have been unable to get inside the ferry. A civilian diver saw three bodies inside the ship Saturday but was unable to break the windows, said Kwon Yong-deok, a coast guard official.
The captain apologized Saturday morning as he left the Mokpo branch of the Gwangju District Court to be jailed.
“I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims,” Lee said. “I gave instructions on the route, then briefly went to the bedroom when it (the listing) happened.”
The captain defended his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation.
A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange shows that an official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center recommended evacuation just five minutes after the Sewol’s distress call. But helmsman Oh Yong-seok said it took 30 minutes for the captain to give the evacuation order as the boat listed. Several survivors said they never heard any evacuation order.
“At the time, the current was very strong, temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” Lee said. “The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time.”
Lee faces five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, and the two other crew members each face three related charges, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Yang, the senior prosecutor, said earlier that Lee was not on the bridge when the Sewol was passing through the tough-to-navigate area where it sank. Yang said the law requires the captain to be on the bridge at such times to help the mate.
Yang said Lee also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, saying, “The captain escaped before the passengers.” Video aired by Yonhap showed Lee among the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.
Yang said the two crew members arrested failed to reduce speed near the islands, conducted a sharp turn and failed to carry out necessary measures to save lives.
Cho, the helmsman arrested, accepted some responsibility outside court. “There was a mistake on my part as well, but the steering (gear of the ship) was unusually turned a lot,” he said.
Prosecutors will have 10 days to decide whether to indict the captain and crew, but can request a 10-day extension from the court.
Investigators said the accident came at a point where the ship had to make a turn, and prosecutors said investigators are looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn that was so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.
The sharp turn came between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m., but it’s not known whether it was done voluntarily or because of some external factor, said Nam Jae-heon, a spokesman for the Maritime Ministry.
Initial questioning of the captain has focused on what actually caused the ferry to sink.
Tracking data from the Maritime Ministry showed the vessel made a sharp turn just before sending its first distress signal.
Some experts believe a tight turn could have dislodged the heavy cargo manifest — including more than 150 vehicles — and destabilized the vessel, causing it to list heavily and then capsize. But others suggested the turn might have been caused by a collision with a rock or other submerged object.
The unfolding tragedy was compounded by the apparent suicide Friday of the students’ high school vice principal, Kang Min-kyu, who was seemingly overcome by guilt at having survived the sinking.
Kang, 52, was found hanging from a tree outside a gymnasium on the island of Jindo near the scene of the disaster. Local media said he had left a note, saying: “Surviving alone is too painful. … I take full responsibility.”
More than 350 of those on board were students from Kang’s Danwon High School, located in the city of Ansan, just south of Seoul.