Ferry captain not on bridge during ship’s critical turn – USA TODAY
Prosecutors seeking an arrest warrant for the captain of an ill-fated South Korean ferry alleged Friday that he had left the vessel in charge of two crew members who failed to reduce its speed in a cluster of islands and may have made too sharp a turn that caused it to list.
The ferry, carrying 475 passengers, most of them high school students, went down off the southwest coast of South Korea on Wednesday. Officials say 28 people died and 268 are still missing.
Rescue teams, working in strong current and murky water, got inside the submerged vessel Friday, but did not immediately report finding any survivors.
Meanwhile, the vice principal of the school that arranged the overnight trip was found hanging from a tree, police said, in an apparent suicide. The 52-year-old school official, Kang Min-kyu, was on the island of Jindo, where rescued passengers have taken shelter.
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South Korean officials said the ferry, named the Sewol, went down at a point off the coast of Jindo island where it had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the 25-year-old third mate ordered a turn that was so sharp it caused the ship to list.
Investigators are focusing on whether the boat, which was running late due to earlier fog, changed course too sharply, shaking cargo and cars loose and thereby shifting the boat off balance, reported South Korean media including the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
The Sewol capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore at 9 a.m.
The ship made the turn between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m., but it’s not known whether that was done voluntarily or because of some external factor, said Nam Jae-heon, a spokesman for the Maritime Ministry.
Yang Jung-jin, a senior prosecutor, said the captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, was not present on the bridge as required when the ship was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together, something he said is required by law so the captain can help a mate make a turn.
The captain also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, Yang said, and “escaped before the passengers.”
He said that two crew members on the bridge of the ferry — a female third mate and a 55-year-old helmsman — also failed to reduce speed in the waters near the islands and did not carry out necessary measures to save lives.
Arrest warrants were being sought for the captain and the two crew members, Yonhap news agency reports. Lee, wearing a hood pulled down tightly to cover much of his face, made a brief apology Thursday to the passengers and their families as he was being questioned by coast guard officers.
A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange and interviews by The Associated Press showed the captain delayed the evacuation of the Sewol for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official told the ship it might have to evacuate.
In one part of the exchange, an unidentified official with the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center, told the crew member on the Sewol, “Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship.”
“It’s hard for people to move,” replied the crew member on the radio.
Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry, told multiple Korean media that the first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were as the crew tried to control the ship.
About 30 minutes later, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn’t sure if, in the confusion and chaos on the bridge, the order was relayed to the passengers. Several survivors told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.
The ship was taking 325 second year students from Danwon High School in Ansan, about 20 miles south of Seoul, on a four-day trip to the island of Jeju, a popular South Korean tourist destination.
Anguished parents, who have spent two nights gathered at a port on Jindo, the island closest to the ship, continued to accuse the government Friday of not doing enough to rescue their children. The government lied by exaggerating the number of rescuers, the families said in a statement read out by their representative at a Jindo gymnasium.
“There is no one explaining to us how the rescue operations are proceeding or directing us on what we should do. At this moment, our children would be screaming for help inside the ship,” said the statement, reported the Korea Herald newspaper.
“Although our children were dying, there were no rescue efforts. They said they would do it later, but they made excuses, arguing tidal currents were too strong, and that their own safety would be threatened,” the families said. “Citizens, this is the truth, the reality of the Republic of Korea. Please help save our children!”
Three massive cranes arrived Friday but it was unclear when they would be used to raise the vessel. Some divers managed to enter the ship Friday, where murky water leaves almost zero visibility, and rescuers have begun injecting oxygen inside the ship to have it floated and help potential survivors, said officials, according to Yonhap.
Prosecutors and police raided the boat’s operator and owner Friday, reported the Korea Herald. About 10 officials from the joint investigation team took computer files and documents from the office of Cheonghaejin Marine Co. in Incheon, west of Seoul. The Sewol ferry, built in Japan in 1994, had extra decks fitted last year to accommodate more passengers, but passed recent safety inspections.