South Korea ferry: Third officer 'had the helm'

Martin Patience described the scene as three more bodies were recovered

The third officer was at the helm of the ferry that capsized off South Korea, investigators said, as divers worked to access the sunken hull.

A total of 268 people - including scores of high school students - remain missing after Wednesday's disaster.

Twenty-eight people are now known to have died and 179 were rescued.

It is not clear why the ferry sank, but experts have suggested it either hit a rock or turned sharply, unbalancing the vessel as cargo shifted.

The vessel - named Sewol - had been travelling from Incheon, in the north-west, to the southern resort island of Jeju. It capsized and sank within a period of two hours, officials said.

Graphic showing location of sunken ferry and timeline of events
South Korean Coast Guard officers search for missing passengers aboard a sunken ferry in the waters off the southern coast near Jindo, South Korea on 17 April 2014 The ferry sank within two hours - it is still not clear why it capsized

A major search and rescue operation has been under way. Bad weather, poor visibility and strong currents hampered the divers' search on Thursday.

Salvage work

Some of the divers have managed to enter the cargo bay of the ship, a coast guard official confirmed in a press conference on Friday.

At the scene

Dozens of ambulances have arrived at the port - a sign, perhaps, that this massive operation is about to enter a grim new phrase.

Just after midday local time a coast guard boat drew into the port. Three bodies were then offloaded onto a small pier. They were then carried from the pier through a police cordon to ambulances that ferried them onwards to the morgue.

This is the third day of the search and rescue operation. Many of the relatives of the missing are angry about the government's handling of this operation. I saw one man shouting at the police demanding to know why oxygen tanks sitting on the portside were not being loaded on to boats and taken to the scene of the stricken ferry - around 20km away.

The coast guard has continued to take relatives on boats to where the ferry sank. I saw around 20 or so boarding one vessel for what must be the most harrowing voyage of their lives.

But they could not identify or rescue any people due to items obstructing the way, the unnamed official added.

Air was also now being injected into the ship to help any people trapped inside - though officials have said that survivors are unlikely - and to help refloat the vessel.

Coast guard officials, quoted by AFP, say the bodies picked up were found floating in the water, and none had been retrieved from the ship itself.

Three salvage cranes have also arrived at the scene, to raise the ship or move it to another area with weaker currents.

Our correspondent at the scene described "an absolutely desperate development for the families" as three more bodies were brought in from the rescue site on Friday.

"We will review the options very carefully, as the salvage operations may hurt survivors trapped inside," Yonhap news agency quoted a coast guard officer as saying.

Meanwhile, investigators have stated that the captain of the ferry, Lee Joon-seok, was not in charge when the ferry ran into trouble.

Family members of missing passengers who were on South Korean ferry "Sewol" wait for news from a rescue team, at a gym in Jindo on 18 April 2014. Relatives of those on board have been enduring an agonising wait for news
A Buddhist monk prays for missing passengers who were on the South Korean ferry "Sewol" which sank in the sea off Jindo at a port where family members of missing passengers gathered in Jindo on 18 April 2014 Dozens of ships and hundreds of divers have been brought into the search effort

"It was the third officer who was in command of steering the ship when the accident took place," state prosecutor Park Jae-Eok told journalists.

"Whether or not they took a drastic turnaround... is under investigation," he said.

"Though surviving crews have different testimonies about the situation, we've been investigating the captain as he was suspected to leave the steering room for an unknown reason," Mr Park added.

It is not unusual for the captain to leave the bridge, former ferry Captain Malcolm Shakesby has told the BBC.

Maritime accidents in South Korea

  • 1970: Sinking of passenger vessel Namyoung leaves 323 dead
  • 1993: Sinking of passenger vessel Seohae Ferry leaves 292 dead
  • 2007: Sinking of freighter Eastern Bright leaving 14 sailors missing
  • 2009: Sinking of cargo ship Orchid Pia after a collision leaves 16 sailors missing

Source: Yonhap news agency

"Depending on whether or not is was in pilotage waters, then yes, the master would be expected to be on the bridge, but if it wasn't in pilotage waters it's a common practice for one of the officers to be doing navigation," he added.

In a separate development, reports say the vice principal of Danwon High School, who was rescued from the ferry, was found dead on Friday.

Yonhap news agency quotes police as saying Kang Min-Kyu, 52, was found hanging from a tree near the gym where many of the relatives of missing passengers have been staying.

Witnesses have accused the crew of telling passengers to remain where they were, rather than evacuate the sinking ship.

The regional coastguard said that bad weather, poor visibility and strong currents hampered the divers' search on Thursday

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

Some 350 of those on board were students from the same high school in a suburb of Seoul who were on a field trip.

Their relatives have endured a long wait for news - their anguish compounded by conflicting information about numbers of survivors issued early on.

In a public statement issued on Friday, families of the missing called for more urgent action.

"Nobody told us about what went wrong and what was happening out there. There was not even a situation room in charge by late Wednesday," a representative said.

"Our children would be shouting for help in the freezing water," he said. "Please help us save our children."

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