South Korea ferry disaster: Sewol captain arrested

  • 19 April 2014
  • From the section Asia
Media captionSewol Ferry Captain Lee Joon-seok: "I am sorry to the people of South Korea"

The captain of a South Korean ferry that capsized and sank this week has been arrested, with two crew members.

Lee Joon-seok, 69, faces charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law.

Amid suggestions he delayed evacuation, Mr Lee said that he feared passengers would "drift away" if they left the ferry "without proper judgement".

Efforts to find the 268 people still missing have been hampered by low visibility and strong currents.

Divers early on Saturday saw what appeared to be bodies in a part of the ship but visibility remains poor and none were retrieved.

Twenty-eight people are now known to have died in the disaster, with 179 rescued.

The ferry Sewol was sailing from Incheon, in the north-west, to the southern resort island of Jeju. It capsized and sank within two hours.

Investigations are focusing on the sharp turn the vessel took before it started listing and whether an evacuation order could have saved lives.

Footage from the ship appeared to show instructions from crew members for passengers to remain on the ship even as it tilted dramatically to one side.

Officials say it is unlikely anyone else has survived.

'Drift away'

Mr Lee, who had already been questioned by police, was shown on television on Saturday after his arrest.

"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" he said.

Image caption The ship's captain has come under intense media scrutiny in South Korea

"I gave instructions regarding the route, then I briefly went to the bedroom and then [the sinking] happened" he said.

"The current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without proper judgement, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties." he said.

He added that rescue boats had not arrived at the time of capsizing.

The helmsman at the time, Cho Joon-ki, was also among those arrested. He said that the ship reacted differently to what he had expected.

"There was a mistake on my behalf as well but the steering [gear of the ship] turned further than it was supposed to," he told reporters.

Image caption Search teams install buoys to mark the position of the sunken ferry after the keel of the ship disappeared under the surface on Friday
Image caption Families of the missing are staying at the gymnasium at Jindo, an island near the site of the sinking
Image caption Many of the missing are students from Danwon High School in Ansan, near Seoul

Some experts believe such a tight turn could have dislodged heavy cargo and destabilised the vessel, while others suggest it could have been caused by a collision with a rock.

Messages and phone calls from those inside painted a picture of people trapped in crowded corridors, unable to escape the sharply-listing ferry.

Officials say air has been pumped into the ship to aid any people trapped inside and to help refloat the vessel.

Three salvage cranes have reached the site and they may be used to raise the ship or move it to another area with weaker currents.

Vice-principal found dead

Some 350 of those on board were students from Danwon High School in Ansan, a suburb of Seoul, who were on a school outing when the ferry sank.

The vice-principal of Danwon High School, who was rescued from the ferry, was found dead on nearby Jindo island on Friday.

Kang Min-kyu, 52, had been missing since Thursday and was discovered hanging from a tree near the gym on Jindo - where many of the relatives of missing passengers have been staying.

At the high school in Ansan, friends and family of the missing gathered on Friday.

"When I first received the call telling me the news, at that time I still had hope," said Cho Kyung-mi, waiting for news of her missing 16-year-old nephew at the school. "And now it's all gone."

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