SEOUL – All 15 people involved in navigating the South Korean ferry that sank and left 302 people dead or missing are now in custody after authorities on Saturday detained four more crew members, a prosecutor said.
Yang Jung-jin of the joint investigation team said two helmsmen and two members of the steering crew were taken in on preliminary arrest warrants issued late Friday. Eleven other crew members, including the captain, had been formally arrested earlier.
All are accused of negligence and of failing to help passengers in need as the ferry Sewol sank on April 16. The captain initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and took half an hour to issue an evacuation order, by which time the ship was tilting too severely for many people to get out.
Ten days after the sinking, 187 bodies have been recovered and 115 people remain missing. Only 174 people survived, including 22 of the 29 crew members.
The seven crew members who have not been arrested or detained held nonmarine jobs, such as chef or steward, Yang said in a telephone interview from Mokpo, the city near the wreck site where prosecutors are based. A court hearing was being held to determine whether formal arrest warrants will be issued against the four crew members arrested Saturday.
Capt. Lee Joon-seok told reporters after his arrest that he withheld the evacuation order because rescuers had yet to arrive and he feared for passengers’ safety in the cold water. Crew members have also defended their actions.
Helmsman Oh Yong-seok, one of those arrested Saturday, has said he and several crew members did their best to save people. He said that he and four crew members worked from nearby boats to smash windows on the sinking ferry, dragging six passengers stuck in cabins to safety.
Officials in charge of the search effort said Saturday that divers have reached two large rooms where many of the lost may lie dead, but the search had to be suspended because of bad weather. Currents were already strong Saturday morning, as they were in the first several days of the search, when divers struggled in vain even to get inside the submerged vessel.
The two rooms where searchers hope to find more of the missing soon are sleeping units designed for many people — one in the stern and one in the bow. Fifty students from Danwon High School in Ansan were booked into one of them. Students from the city near Seoul make up more than 80 percent of the 302 people dead or missing; they had been on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju.
Large objects toppled when the ferry tipped over and sank are believed to be keeping divers from reaching bodies in at least one of the rooms.
Families have been upset with the pace of the recovery effort, along with several miscommunications by the government and perceptions of insensitivity.
There have been several reports in South Korean media of bodies going to the wrong families, with the error sometimes caught only after the remains were taken to a funeral home. On Friday, the government conceded that some of the recovered bodies had been misidentified and announced changes to prevent such mistakes from happening again.