South Korea seeks arrest of Sewol ferry captain

Lucy Williamson reports on the arrest of the ferry's captain and the continuing search for missing passengers

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.

Graphic showing location of sunken ferry and timeline of events
South Korean navy personnel try to install buoys to mark the sunken passenger ship Sewol in the water off the southern coast near Jindo on 18 April 2014. 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
A family member of a missing passenger from the South Korean ferry "Sewol" reaches out to sea as she cries at a port in Jindo on 18 April 2014. 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.

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

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.

South Korean rescue members prepare to search for missing passengers of a capsized ferry at sea off Jindo on 18 April 2014. Divers are beating back strong currents and poor visibility to try to gain access to the sunken vessel
A family member of missing passengers (C) watches the site of the accident, as police officers stand guard at a port in Jindo on 18 April 2014. As the hours pass, hopes of finding any survivors are fading
Messages left by fellow students are stuck to the classroom windows of students missing in the South Korean ferry disaster at Danwon High School in Ansan on 18 April 2014. 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.

bbc graphic

More on This Story

South Korea ferry

More Asia stories

RSS

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • MouseEscape the rat race

    Burnt out? Meet the workers who took more than a vacation - and changed their lives

Programmes

  • (File photo) A man dressed as Father Christmas with a sleigh and a reindeer Click Watch

    A website which tracks Father Christmas, plus other sites and apps to keep you entertained

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.