MOKPO, South Korea — South Korean President Park Geun-hye castigated the captain and some crew members of a sunken ferry Monday, saying their actions in abandoning a vessel with hundreds of passengers aboard were “tantamount to murder.”
Park’s comments came amid steady criticism about her government’s response to the disaster and a growing sense of fury in South Korea about alleged criminal incompetence aboard the ferry Sewol.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, was arrested Friday with two other crew members, and prosecutors said Monday that four additional crew members — two first mates, one second mate and an engineer — also have been detained. All face charges stemming from the quick abandonment of the ship and their failure to first assist passengers in evacuating.
Officials said 104 had been confirmed dead by early Tuesday and 198 remained missing.
As South Korea mourns and prepares for a long series of funerals, it is also grappling with an emerging criminal case that could sort out some of the responsibility for the disaster. Some South Koreans, though acknowledging the apparent irresponsibility of the crew, said Park’s comments were made prematurely and could complicate the already emotional proceedings.
During a meeting with advisers, Park criticized the Sewol’s captain for leaving a 25-year-old third mate — “an entry-level worker” — in charge of navigating the narrow waterway where the ferry ran into trouble, according to a transcript from the presidential office. Park also noted that a maritime operator on shore repeatedly urged the Sewol to evacuate its passengers — something the crew members said was impossible because the vessel had already tilted drastically.
“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. “But he then abandoned them and escaped first. This is unthinkable legally and morally.”
She also pledged an investigation into whether crew members had proper knowledge of safety measures and whether inspections had been carried out correctly. Park raised concern about the oversight of the Korea Shipping Association, a safety watchdog that also provides membership status to shipping companies. Park said that setup had resulted in “a systematic problem.”
The 6,825-ton vessel was sailing from Incheon to Jeju when it capsized and sank in the Yellow Sea. The exact cause of the disaster is unknown, but some investigators have speculated that a rapid turn could have knocked shipping containers and other heavy cargo out of place, throwing the boat off balance.
An extensive transcript released Sunday of contact between the ferry and the shore indicated a period of indecision and chaos on board for nearly 45 minutes after the vessel’s distress call. If an evacuation order was ever given — the captain says it was; many survivors say they never heard it — it came at a time when the vessel was listing severely and most passengers were unable to move.
Lee, the captain, was photographed scampering off the vessel before it totally overturned, when hundreds were still trapped aboard — in violation of South Korean maritime law. All 174 who were rescued escaped the vessel in the first hours of the disaster Wednesday; no survivors have since been found.
Investigators have ordered dozens of people to appear for interviews, including officials from the Chonghaejin Marine Co., which operated the ferry and in 2012 performed renovations to expand its capacity. Several of the company’s top executives face travel bans, South Korean news media reported.
YTN, a South Korean news channel, reported that before the ill-fated ferry journey, Chonghaejin Marine had misreported information on a manifest given to the Korea Shipping Association, saying that the ferry was carrying 150 vehicles and 657 tons of cargo. In reality, YTN said, the vessel was much heavier, loaded with 180 vehicles and 1,157 tons of cargo. That report could not be independently verified.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.