South Korean ferry passengers told to stay put after captain abandoned ship

Distraught family members of missing ferry passengers urged authorities to find their loved ones, as the search continued for 268 people. (Reuters)
April 18

The captain of a stricken ferry was arrested early Saturday as prosecutors said that he and other crew members might have exacerbated one of South Korea’s worst maritime disasters, the semi­official Yonhap news agency said.

The arrest of the captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members calls new attention to the role of possible human error in the disaster — particularly the decision to order passengers to stay put even as the vessel began to dangerously list.

Photographs have emerged that purportedly show the captain leaving the vessel — when it was tilted, but before it went ­belly-up — with the help of rescue workers. According to Yonhap, Lee ­faces counts including negligence and violation of maritime law, stemming from his reported abandonment of the ship when most passengers were still aboard.

“Charges against Lee include not making efforts to safely evacuate passengers and eventually causing their death,” said Lee Bong-chang, a senior prosecutor, according to Yonhap.

The captain, though, has been just one of the many targets for criticism in the three days since the 6,825-ton ferry, the Sewol, capsized in the Yellow Sea. With nearly 300 still missing, swarms of emergency workers and divers have failed to make headway in the rescue operation, unable to enter submerged areas of the vessel where passengers are likely still trapped. Meanwhile, South Korean officials have repeatedly botched their count of the number missing and rescued.

On Friday, officials said 174 of 475 aboard had been rescued — not 179 as previously stated — in the latest but hardly the most drastic revision. So far, 29 passengers have been confirmed dead. The others remain unaccounted for.

Compounding the tragedy, one of the initial survivors committed suicide, retreating to a hill and hanging himself not far from a gymnasium where relatives of missing passengers are staying, police said Friday. The man had been a vice principal at Danwon High School, which had 325 students aboard the ferry heading on a four-day school trip.

South Korean news media said officers found a note in the vice principal’s wallet in which he agonized about his guilt.

“It’s too much for me to go on living alone while not knowing whether 200 [students] are dead or alive,” the letter read. “I take all the responsibility. I’m the one who initiated the school trip. Throw my ash at the accident site.”

The cause of the accident is unclear, but investigators said at a briefing that they are looking into a sharp turn the boat made shortly before it started to list. That turn could have caused cargo to shift position. The ferry at the time was being steered by the third mate, not the captain, investigators said. Although it is not unusual for a third mate to handle a boat, the Sewol at the time was navigating through a narrow channel of islands where cautious maneuvering is required.

By 8:55 a.m. the day of the disaster, crew members already knew that they were in trouble, according to a transcript of radio communications with a maritime operator in Jeju.

Five minutes later, according to the transcript, provided by South Korea’s maritime affairs ministry, the Jeju operator asked whether lives had been lost or were in danger.

Captain Lee Joon-seok faces five charges including negligence of duty in failing to help passengers as the search continues for more than 200 people still missing. (Reuters)

“It’s impossible to check,” a Sewol crew member said. “It’s impossible to move around because the ship is listed.”

“Roger that,” the operator responded. “Make sure to instruct the passengers to wear life vests and prepare for a possible evacuation.”

“It’s hard for people to move,” the crew member said.

But even after crew members were notified by the operator to potentially prepare passengers for evacuation, they instead told all on board to stay put. Between 9 and 9:50 a.m., a crew member with a walkie-talkie repeated the announcement several times, even as objects inside the vessel were “rolling all over.”

Within minutes of his last announcement, water started to fill up inside the ferry, the crew member, Kang Hye-sung, 31, said Friday.

“It was so hectic in the ship that I couldn’t even think to make any judgment,” said Kang, who is hospitalized with lung injuries.

Survivors say many passengers who heeded the announcements could still be trapped in the ferry, submerged and upside-down in the Yellow Sea since Wednesday.

Kang added that he did not have any contact with the captain while the ferry was in trouble and did not personally witness his whereabouts. Kang said the order to make the announcements came not from the captain but from another senior crew member who did not escape.

South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo, a major daily newspaper, reported Friday that the ferry’s captain was rescued by a coast guard patrol ship at 9:50 a.m, a point at which Kang was still repeating his announcement about staying put.

In an accident in which more than three-fifths of the passengers are dead or missing, 20 of 29 crew members are alive, the Joongang Ilbo said.

The ferry with 475 aboard was heading from the port city of Incheon to the island of Jeju, a popular tourist attraction, when it ran into trouble about three hours from its destination, near the southwestern corner of the Korean Peninsula.

Since the boat capsized shortly before noon Wednesday, scores of emergency workers have faced a series of obstacles in an operation that has sparked fury from relatives of missing passengers. On Friday, rescue teams used high-pressure hoses to pump oxygen into the vessel, hoping to help any survivors breathe.

On Saturday, divers saw three bodies floating through a window of a passenger cabin but were unable to retrieve them, the coast guard said.

Several cranes are also on site and will eventually be used to move the hull. For now, though, search officials are reluctant to take that step, fearful that such a jarring operation would pose new risks to anybody still alive inside.

In recent days, several cellphone videos have emerged showing scenes inside the ship while it was still listing but not yet submerged. In one, teenagers could be seen wearing life jackets while crouched inside little cubbyholes normally used as storage areas for belongings.

Harlan reported from Minamisanriku, Japan.

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