South Korea seeks arrest of Sewol ferry captain

  • 18 April 2014
  • From the section Asia

Prosecutors in South Korea have asked a court to issue an arrest warrant for the captain of the ferry that sank on Wednesday, officials say.

It was earlier revealed that a junior officer - and not the captain - was at the helm of the ferry when it capsized.

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

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

Coast guard officials said on Friday two divers managed to enter the cargo bay of the vessel, but could not identify or rescue anyone due to items obstructing the way.

Wrong manoeuvre?

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.

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

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

Rescue teams install buoys to mark the position of the sunken ferry after the keel of the ship - visible until Friday - disappeared under the surface
Relatives await news of their loved ones on the shore of nearby Jindo island

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.

In addition to the captain, arrest warrants are also being sought for two other crew members, reports say.

"The joint investigation team of police and prosecutors asked for warrants to arrest three crew, including the captain," a coast guard official in Makpo told AFP.

Captain Lee Joon-seok, who has already been quizzed by police, was shown on television on Thursday apologising to the victims and their relatives.

"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed. I don't know what to say," he said.

Details of the charges have not yet been made public.

Challenging conditions

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 island - where many of the relatives of missing passengers have been staying.

Amid a major search and rescue operation, officials say air has been injected into the ship to help any people trapped inside - though officials have said that survivors are unlikely - and to help refloat the vessel.

Three salvage cranes have reached the site, which officials say may be used to raise the ship or move it to another area with weaker currents.

But challenging conditions have hampered the search for a third consecutive day.

"Visibility is almost non-existent. You can hardly see your hand in front of your face," one diver told AFP news agency after returning from a trip.

Divers are beating back strong currents and poor visibility to try to gain access to the sunken vessel
As the hours pass, hopes of finding any survivors are fading
Students of Danwon High School leave messages for those missing in the ferry disaster

State prosecutor Park Jae-Eok earlier told journalists that the third officer was in command of steering the ship when the accident took place.

"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.

But former ferry Captain Malcolm Shakesby told the BBC this was not uncommon.

"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 said.

Survivors have accused the crew of instructing them to remain where they were rather than evacuate the ship.

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

Their relatives, who have endured a long wait for news, released a statement on Friday calling for more urgent action.

"Our children would be shouting for help in the freezing water... Please help us save our children," a representative of the families said.