As the ferry lurched to the side and capsized, a thin man wearing only a sweater and underpants ambled to the ship’s edge. Waiting there was a rescue team. Then apparently without a moment’s hesitation or a look back at the sinking boat that would soon claim hundreds of lives — many of them children — the man jumped into the arms of the rescue team. And was whisked to safety.
This moment when Captain Lee Joon-seok allegedly abandoned his ferry and hundreds of its passengers has come to symbolize an entire nation’s shame, which has spurred the resignation of its prime minister. The captain, who has been arrested, has been called a coward the world over. On Monday morning, the South Korean Coast Guard released footage of him fleeing the boat.
“I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” he said afterward, head lowered and hidden inside a hood. “And I don’t know what to say.”
His shame isn’t good enough, said President Park Geun-hye, who called his actions “tantamount to murder.” “Right after the accident, the captain didn’t comply with orders for evacuation from [the maritime operator] and told the passengers to stay where they are,” Park said last week. “But he then abandoned them and escaped first. This is unthinkable legally and morally.”
The entire crew as well as rescue teams have come under sweeping criticism for a lackluster rescue effort on April 16 when the ferry began to sink. As of Monday morning, as divers resumed their desperate search for bodies following a weekend of rocky weather, the number of confirmed dead stood at 188. An additional 114 are believed missing.
Of the 470 people aboard the vessel — the majority of whom had been students or teachers at Danwon High School — only 174 people lived. Twenty-two of the 29 crew members, like the captain, survived.
According to the South China Morning Post, most of the remaining bodies are believed to be in 64 of the ship’s 111 rooms. Many of the children had been ordered by the ship’s captain and crew to await a rescue team that would never come.
The boy who was the first to call the emergency number 119 has been found. So have two children, a boy and a girl, who had tied their lifejackets together, presumably to keep from floating apart. “I started to cry thinking that they didn’t want to leave each other,” the diver who discovered the children told reporters.
In one room alone, 48 children were found on Saturday.
On Sunday, the nation’s prime minister resigned, blaming “deep-rooted evils” in a Korean society that could precipitate such a tragedy.
“As I saw grieving families suffering with the pain of losing their loved ones and the sadness and resentment of the public, I thought I should take all responsibility as prime minister,” Chung Hong-won said. “There have been so many varieties of irregularities that have continued in every corner of our society and practices that have gone wrong. I hope these deep-rooted evils get corrected this time and this kind of accident never happens again.”