S. Korea ferry operator had issues, accidents in past – USA TODAY
The number of confirmed dead after a ferry sank off South Korea rose to 33 Saturday as the captain of the vessel was arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need.
Rescuers planned dozens of dives Saturday in an attempt to enter the ferry and retrieve at least some of the more than 270 people missing after the Sewol sank off South Korea’s southern coast Wednesday with 476 people on board.
Four bodies were found in the murky water near the ferry, Yonhap news agency reported Saturday, citing officials from the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters.
Strong currents and rain made it difficult to get inside the ferry, where most of the passengers are believed to have been trapped, coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said.
Ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., has had issues in the past, Yonhap also reported. Three weeks before the Sewol’s sinking, one of Chonghaejin’s passenger ships collided with a fishing boat in the Yellow Sea, Yonhap reports. No one was injured. In the last few years, Chonghaejin Marine ships have also had generator and engine troubles, Yonhap said.
With only 174 known survivors and the chances of survival becoming ever-slimmer, the disaster is shaping up to be one of South Korea’s worst, made all the more heartbreaking by the likely loss of so many young people, ages 16 or 17. 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.
The captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, was jailed on five counts of charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law. Two crewmembers were also arrested, including a mate who a prosecutor said was steering in challenging waters unfamiliar to her when the accident occurred.
The Associated Press identified the two crewmembers in custody as helmsman Cho Joon-ki, 55, and the ship’s 25-year-old third mate, identified only by her surname, Park. Another helmsman, Park Kyung-nam, identified the third mate as Park Han-kyul.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin told reporters that the third mate was steering the ship Wednesday morning as it passed through an area with lots of islands clustered 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 hadn’t 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.
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Yang said the captain was not present on the bridge as required when the ship was passing through an area with many islands, 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.”
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.
MacLeod reported from Beijing. Contributing: The Associated Press