MOKPO, South Korea — The captain of the ferry that sank off South Korea, leaving more than 300 missing or dead, was arrested early Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Two crew members also were taken into custody, including a mate who a prosecutor said was steering in challenging waters unfamiliar to her when the accident occurred.
Prosecutors said the ferry captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested early Saturday along helmsman Cho Joon-ki, 55, and the ship’s 25-year-old third mate. Another helmsman, Park Kyung-nam, identified the 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 close 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.
So far 29 bodies have been recovered since Wednesday’s disaster off the southern South Korea coast. More than 270 people are still missing, and most are believed to be trapped inside the 6,852-ton vessel.
Divers fighting strong currents and rain have been unable to get inside the ferry. A civilian diver saw three bodies inside the ship Saturday but was unable to break the windows, said Kwon Yong-deok, a coast guard official. Hundreds of rescuers planned dives Saturday.
The captain apologized Saturday morning as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed. “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,” Lee told reporters.
“I gave instructions on the route, then briefly went to the bedroom when it (the listing) happened,” he said.
The captain defended his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation.
A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange shows that an official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center recommended evacuation just five minutes after the Sewol’s distress call. But helmsman Oh Yong-seok told The Associated Press that it took 30 minutes for the captain to give the evacuation order as the boat listed. Several survivors told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.
“At the time, the current was very strong, temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” Lee told reporters. “The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time.”
Lee faces five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, and the two other crew members each face three related charges, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Yang, the senior prosecutor, said earlier that Lee was not on the bridge when the ferry Sewol was passing through the tough-to-navigate area where it sank. Yang said the law requires the captain to be on the bridge at such times to help the mate.
Yang said Lee also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, saying, “The captain escaped before the passengers.” Video aired by Yonhap showed Lee among the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.
Yang said the two crew members arrested failed to reduce speed near the islands, conducted a sharp turn and failed to carry out necessary measures to save lives.
Cho, the helmsman arrested, accepted some responsibility outside court. “There was a mistake on my part as well, but the steering (gear of the ship) was unusually turned a lot,” he told reporters.
Prosecutors will have 10 days to decide whether to indict the captain and crew, but can request a 10-day extension from the court.
The Sewol had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 476 people aboard, including 323 students from Danwon High School in Ansan. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore a little before 9 a.m. Wednesday.
With only 174 known survivors and the chances of survival becoming slimmer by the hour, it is shaping up to be one of South Korea’s worst disasters, made all the more heartbreaking by the likely loss of so many young people, aged 16 or 17. The 29th confirmed fatality, a woman, was recovered late Friday, the coast guard said.
The country’s last major ferry disaster was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.
Only the ferry’s dark blue keel jutted out over the surface on Friday, and by that night, even that had disappeared, and rescuers set two giant beige buoys to mark the area. Navy divers attached underwater air bags to the ferry to prevent it from sinking deeper, the Defense Ministry said.
Divers have pumped air into the ship to try to sustain any survivors. Three vessels with cranes arrived at the accident site to prepare to salvage the ferry, but they will not hoist the ship before getting approval from family members of those still believed inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
Coast guard official Ko Myung-seok said 176 ships and 28 planes were being mobilized to search the area around the sunken ship Saturday, and that more than 650 civilian, government and military divers were to try to search the interior of the ship. The coast guard also said a thin layer of oil was visible near the area where the ferry sank; about two dozen vessels were summoned to contain the spill.
Klug reported from Seoul. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.