Arrest warrant sought for ferry captain; rescued school official found hanged
Published April 18, 2014FoxNews.com
Prosecutors say they've asked a court to issue an arrest warrant for the captain of the South Korean ferry that sank two days ago — leaving hundreds missing and feared dead — as a high school vice principal who had been rescued from the ferry was found Friday hanging from a tree on Jindo, an island near the wreckage where rescued passengers have been housed.
The vice principal, identified as Kang Min-kyu, was the lead guide for the school trip. No suicide note was found near the site, but Yonhap news agency reported that Kang had felt guilty for being alive while many of those under his care were missing.
"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed. I don't know what to say."
- Lee Joon-seok, ferry captain
The investigation into the ferry disaster has focused on the sharp turn it took just before it started listing and whether a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives. Investigators are also determining whether the captain abandoned the ferry, The Sewol.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, has not spoken publicly about his role in the incident. Officials continue to interview him and the crew.
Of the 29 crewmembers, 20, including the captain, survived, the coast guard said. Officials were investigating whether Lee got on one of the first rescue boats.
Lee has made a brief, videotaped appearance, although his face was hidden by a gray hoodie.
"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," Lee said. "I don't know what to say."
Rescuers are struggling to find about 270 people still missing and feared dead. Strong currents and bad weather have made the search difficult. Divers have begun pumping air into the submerged ship 48 hours after it listed and sank, coast guard officials said Friday. But it wasn't immediately clear if the air was for survivors or for a salvage operation.
At least 28 bodies have been recovered, with officials tallying 179 survivors. Officials say many of the missing victims are high school students. With the chances of survival becoming slimmer with each passing hour, this sinking is shaping up to be one of the country's worst disasters.
The ship had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 475 people, including 325 students. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore at 9 a.m., with only the dark blue keel jutting out over the surface. By late Friday, even that had disappeared, and rescuers floated two giant beige colored buoys to mark the area. Navy divers attached underwater lifting bags to the 6,852-ton ferry to prevent it from sinking further, the Defense Ministry said.
Three vessels with cranes arrived at the site to possibly begin salvaging the ferry. But they will not hoist the ship before getting approval from family members of those believed trapped inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
On the shore of a nearby island, angry and bewildered relatives watched the rescue attempts. Some held a Buddhist prayer ritual, crying and praying for their relatives' safe return.
"I want to jump into the water with them," said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of another missing student, Park Ye-ji. "My loved one is under the water and it's raining. Anger is not enough."
South Korean officials offered some information about what may have led to the sinking. They said the accident happened at a point where the ferry had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said in a briefing that investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn whose angle was so sharp that it caused the ship to list.
Yonhap news agency reported that the third mate was a 26-year-old with a year of experience steering ships and five months on the ferry.
The ship made a sharp turn between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m. local time, but it's not known whether the turn was made voluntarily or because of some external factor, Nam Jae-heon, a director for public relations at the Maritime Ministry, said Friday.
Another angle being probed was the captain's role in the disaster.
A transcript of a ship-to-shore exchange and interviews by The Associated Press showed the captain delayed the evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official told the ship it might have to evacuate.
The recommendation by an unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center came at 9 a.m., just five minutes after a distress call by the Sewol. In a recording of the conversation, the crewmember says: "Currently the body of the ship has listed to the left. The containers have listed as well."
The Jeju VTS officer responds: "OK. Any loss of human life or injuries?" The ship's answer is: "It's impossible to check right now. The body of the ship has tilted, and it's impossible to move."
The VTS officer then says "Yes, OK. Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship."
"It's hard for people to move," replies the crew member on the radio.
Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry, told the AP that the first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were, Oh said.
About 30 minutes later, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn't sure in the confusion and chaos on the bridge if the order was relayed to the passengers. Several survivors told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.
Park, the prosecutor, also said crews' testimonies differed about where the captain was when the ship started listing. As that listing continued, the captain was "near" the bridge, Park said, but he couldn't say exactly where.
Also Friday, prosecutors raided the offices of the ship's owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, in Incheon.
The operator of the ferry added more cabin rooms to three floors after its 2012 purchase the ship, which was built in Japan in 1994, an official at the private Korean Register of Shipping told the AP on Friday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not allowed to discuss matters under investigation, said the extension work between October 2012 and February 2013 increased the Sewol's weight by 187 tons and added enough room for 117 more people. The Sewol had a capacity of 921 when it sank.
As is common in South Korea, the ship's owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, paid for a safety check by the Korean Register of Shipping, the official said, which found that the Sewol passed all safety tests, including whether the ship could stabilize in the event of tilting to the right or to the left after adding more weight.
Ian Winkle, a British naval architect and ferry expert said many ships have such modifications, to increase capacity, for instance.
The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.