LONDON/MOKPO, SOUTH KOREA – The South Korean ferry Sewol that sank off the country’s southwest coast on Wednesday, with the likely loss of more than 300 passengers, was being steered by an inexperienced young officer who was navigating the area, which is notorious for its fast currents, for the first time.
The revelation lends weight to the theory that a series of errors by senior crew members caused the Sewol to list and capsize, prompting a major rescue operation and questions about safety measures as South Korea struggled to deal with one of the worst maritime disasters in its history.
The crew appeared underprepared to deal with a serious incident at sea amid reports that the vessel’s owner, Chonghaejin, had not given them guidance about how to execute a swift evacuation. There were not enough life jackets to go around, and footage of the aftermath showed that only two of more than 40 lifeboats had been deployed.
The parents of hundreds of children missing aboard the sunken ferry, meanwhile, are confronting the grim reality that attempts to bring their sons and daughters out alive have failed.
A mixture of grief and anger has gripped South Korea since the ship capsized and sank, with the probable loss of around 300 mostly teenage passengers.
Divers have recovered 13 bodies from inside the ferry, pushing the confirmed death toll to 46, officials said Sunday.
The palpable anguish of the relatives of dead and missing passengers — many of them high school pupils on a trip to the resort island of Jeju — is matched only by contempt for the crew and the chaotic response by the authorities.
South Koreans awoke Saturday to the news that the ship’s embattled captain, Lee Joon-seok, had been arrested, along with the third mate, 25-year-old Park Han-kyul, who was steering the vessel at the time of the accident, and helmsman Cho Joon-ki, 55.
While Park’s possible role in the accident has yet to be established, she was guiding the ship through unfamiliar waters dotted with tiny islands when the accident occurred, apparently after the ship made a sharp turn.
A more experienced officer would usually have been at the wheel at that point, but Park was given control because the ship’s departure had been delayed by heavy fog.
The ship’s 69-year-old captain faces five charges, including negligence and violations of maritime law, amid accusations that he abandoned the stricken vessel while hundreds of passengers were still on board. “The captain and two crew members abandoned the ship and didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” said prosecutor Lee Bong-chang. “They should have also sailed more carefully without making sharp turns.”
Lee, his head bowed and obscured by a gray hooded sweatshirt, told reporters during his arraignment that he had delayed evacuating the boat due to rough seas and the absence of rescue boats.
Explaining why he had ordered passengers to stay put, even as the ship went into a severe list, he said: “At the time a rescue ship had not arrived. There were also no fishing boats around to rescue (us) or other ships to help.
“The currents were very strong and water was cold at that time in the area. I thought that passengers would be swept far away and get into trouble if they evacuated without wearing life jackets. It would have been the same even if they had worn life jackets.” Some survivors have disputed claims by crew members that an evacuation order was issued 30 minutes after the accident, saying they did not hear any orders to leave the ship over the public address system. On Saturday, officials confirmed that Lee had been in his private cabin when the accident occurred and had left the vessel in Park’s hands.
Lee’s arrest came before hundreds of divers began a fourth day searching for signs of life inside the Sewol, submerged off the coast of Jindo, a island where hundreds of relatives have been following every twist and turn of the rescue operation.
The vessel left the western port on Incheon on Tuesday evening with 475 people aboard, including 325 pupils and 15 teachers from Danwon high school in the Seoul suburb of Ansan.
Tracking data shows it took a sharp, and so far unexplained, turn before sending its first distress signal.
Some experts believe the turn could have dislodged heavy cargo — including more than 150 vehicles — and destabilized the vessel, causing it to list and sink.
Less than two hours later, it was almost completely submerged.
As of Saturday evening, 32 people had been confirmed dead, while about 270 were still missing.
Officials said 174 people were rescued immediately after the accident, including 20 of the 30 crew members.
The failure to rescue any passengers once the ship had sunk, or to quickly recover bodies, has prompted furious outbursts — and occasional scuffles — among relatives packed inside a gymnasium near the rescue operations center on Jindo.
Grieving parents were shown murky underwater footage of the 6,825-ton ship’s hull Saturday following reports that divers had spotted three bodies through the window of a passenger cabin but were unable to retrieve them.
“What is the point of showing us this when you can’t rescue our children?” one unnamed parent yelled at officials, according to Arirang TV.
Vessels equipped with cranes have been moved to the accident site, but there are no immediate plans to use them to lift the vessel from the seabed.
Kim Jae-in, a spokesman for the South Korea Coast Guard, said the cranes will be used only when divers are sure lifting the vessel will not endanger anyone left alive inside. “Lifting the ship does not mean they will remove it completely from the sea. They can lift it two to three meters off the seabed,” Kim said. Divers have been tapping on the ship’s hull in the vain hope of a response from inside, but have heard nothing.
In a discovery that lends weight to the theory that the ship may have veered too quickly off course, investigators said divers had found no evidence that it had struck a rock or other submerged object.
As more than 600 divers, working in shifts, battled strong tides and poor visibility, South Korea appeared paralyzed by grief.
Concerts and cultural events were postponed indefinitely, while prime-time dramas and variety shows gave way to occasionally melodramatic coverage of the tragedy.