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Lee Joon-seok, captain of sunken South Korean ferry, reportedly arrested

MOKPO, South Korea (AP) -- Police arrested the captain and two other crew members of the South Korean ferry that sank two days ago, leaving more than 270 people missing and 29 people dead, the Yonhap news agency reported Saturday.

As the last bit of the sunken ferry's hull slipped Friday beneath the murky water off southern South Korea, there was a new victim: a vice principal of the high school whose students were among the passengers was found hanged, an apparent suicide.

The Sewol had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 476 people aboard, including 323 students from Danwon High School in Ansan. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore a little before 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Only its dark blue keel jutted out over the surface. But by Friday night, even that had disappeared, and rescuers set two giant beige buoys to mark the area. Navy divers attached underwater air bags to the 6,852-ton ferry to prevent it from sinking deeper, the Defense Ministry said.

The coast guard said divers began pumping air into the ship to try to sustain any survivors.

Strong currents and rain made it difficult to get inside the ferry. Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the vessel, where most of the passengers were believed to have been trapped when it sank, coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said.

Investigators said the accident came at a point where the ship had to make a turn, and prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn that was so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.

The sharp turn came between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m., but it's not known whether it was done voluntarily or because of some external factor, said Nam Jae-heon, a spokesman for the Maritime Ministry.

Another angle being probed is the role of the captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok.

Yonhap said Lee was detained early Saturday, along with two crew members. Lee faces five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, Yonhap said.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said Lee was not on the bridge when the ferry was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together, something he said is required by law so the captain can help a mate make a turn. The captain also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, he said.

"The captain escaped before the passengers," Yang said.

Two crewmembers on the bridge of the ferry - a 25-year-old woman and a 55-year-old helmsman - also failed to reduce speed near the islands and conducted a sharp turn, Yang said. They also did not carry out necessary measures to save lives, he said.

Another focus of the investigation is that a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives.

Police said the vice principal who was found hanged from a tree on Jindo, an island near the sunken ship where survivors have been housed, had been rescued from the ferry.

Identified as Kang Min-kyu, he was the leader of the students traveling on a school excursion. In his suicide note, Kang said he felt guilty for surviving and wanted to take responsibility for what happened because he had led the trip, according to police.

He asked that his body be cremated and the ashes scattered where the ferry went down.

With only 174 survivors from the 475 aboard and the chances of survival becoming slimmer by the hour, it was shaping up to be one of South Korea's worst disasters, made all the more heartbreaking by the likely loss of so many young people, aged 16 or 17.

The toll rose to 29 after the body of a woman was recovered, authorities said early Saturday.

The country's last major ferry disaster was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.

A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange and interviews by The Associated Press showed the captain delayed the evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official told the ship it might have to evacuate.

The recommendation by the unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center came at 9 a.m., just five minutes after a distress call by the Sewol. In the exchange, the Sewol crewmember says: "Currently the body of the ship has listed to the left. The containers have listed as well."

The Jeju VTS officer responds: "OK. Any loss of human life or injuries?" The ship's answer is: "It's impossible to check right now. The body of the ship has tilted, and it's impossible to move."

The VTS officer then says: "Yes, OK. Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship."

"It's hard for people to move," replies the crew member on the radio.

Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry, told the AP that the first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were as the crew tried to control the ship.

About 30 minutes later, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn't sure if, in the confusion and chaos on the bridge, the order was relayed to the passengers. Several survivors told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.

Lee, the captain, made a brief, videotaped appearance with his face hidden by a gray hoodie. "I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," Lee said. "I don't know what to say."

Three vessels with cranes arrived at the accident site to prepare to salvage the ferry. But they will not hoist the ship before getting approval from family members of those still believed inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

On Jindo, angry and distraught relatives watched the rescue attempts. Some held a Buddhist prayer ritual, crying and praying for their relatives.

"I want to jump into the water with them," said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of a missing student, Park Ye-ji. "My loved one is under the water and it's raining. Anger is not enough."

Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, in Incheon, the operator of the ferry, added more cabin rooms to three floors after its 2012 purchase of the ship, which was built in Japan in 1994, an official at the private Korean Register of Shipping told the AP.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter was still under investigation, said the extension work between October 2012 and February 2013 increased the Sewol's weight by 187 tons and added enough room for 117 more people. The Sewol had a capacity of 921 when it sank.

As is common in South Korea, the ship's owner paid for a safety check by the Korean Register of Shipping, which found that the Sewol passed all safety tests, including whether it could stabilize in the event of tilting, the official said.

Prosecutors raided and seized materials and documents from the ship's operator, as well as six companies that had conducted safety checks, revamped the ship, or loaded container boxes, a sign that investigators will likely examine the ship's addition of rooms and how containers were loaded.


Klug reported from Seoul. Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.

Captain of South Korea Ferry Apologizes

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goodgrief61945 April 18 2014 at 5:50 PM

Hopefully, the student that are in their cabins, have found some air pockets until more rescue efforts can be made.

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2 replies
acowgurl goodgrief61945 April 18 2014 at 6:00 PM

The ferry is now entirely sunken. There are no more air pockets. Sadly, all those young lives are lost. RIP

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3 replies
bdot157 goodgrief61945 April 18 2014 at 7:05 PM

There are no more air pockets and even if there were hypothermia would kill them in this length of time and at those temperatures.
Let the Captain wait in those chilly waters till his trial date, see how well he fares !!!

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Carl W. April 19 2014 at 3:22 AM

Wondering what depth she's in, for possible continued SAR, & investigating what went wrong.

Sounds like ALL sizable vessels should now have emergency drills, before departing. No real need to 'punish' such captains - they have to live with these, and can't escape it.

Wondering why the "inflatables" - cans on the side that auto-launch rafts, didn't deploy?

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LilAnnie2012 April 19 2014 at 2:04 AM

My heart-felt sympathy goes out to the families and the survivors for their tremendous loss! This should not have happened!! I'm sorry! Those were such young souls! My prays are with you all!!!

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imdhunk April 19 2014 at 12:55 AM

No one should've died on that trip...... evacuation procedures should've been instituted on the side of caution and if there was no emergency at least no lives would've been lost.... My understanding of the Asian culture is about "losing face" with your superiors, family, friends, and associates so in the interim you take chances regardless of outcome and suicide is often not viewed the way the western culture views it........

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1 reply
Carl W. imdhunk April 19 2014 at 3:37 AM

Still in favor of disaster drills for ALL commercial shipping. Even pleasure cruises, like the one on Lake George, N.Y, where small craft of very elderly capsized just as they very finishing boarding. Want more? I got off such a vessel touring Inner Harbor in Baltimore, and tried immediately to do something (police, etc), because she was way too overloaded & low in water. Caught in situations like these, be bold & care enough about you, and GET OFF !!!

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ayyiyicaramba April 19 2014 at 12:47 AM

You know...as much as I admire and respect the Asian people and their culture, especially that of the Japanese and South Koreans, there is this - one thing about them - that truly annoys me greatly.

First, for those not aware, when this tragic incident first unfolded, the (our) United States Navy immediately dispatched a ship(s) equipped with helicopters to the scene, and once on or near the location, the navy informed ROK government officials they were ready and standing by to provide assistance. Well...it seems (to me anyway) that the attitude of the South Korean government was, more or less, “This is our problem and we will handle it without your assistance!” Personally, I would like to believe this has more to do with national pride and nothing to do with hatred or resentment of the USA.

Now why did I mention/include Japan? Well...because I recall one of their tragic incident years ago - the one involving a Boeing 747 flight that “disappeared” from their radar screen(s). At first, Japan had no idea what happened to the plane, however U.S. military air traffic controllers at the U.S. Air Force’s Yokota Air Base DID note when and approx. where the aircraft went down. Bottom line: Japan ignored the information provided by the USAF. Not sure how long after - but Japanese officials eventually did learn on their own, the aircraft had crashed into a mountain.

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1 reply
Carl W. ayyiyicaramba April 19 2014 at 3:41 AM

Interesting. Perhaps both were involved in their operations, but I'm grabbing at straws. Thanks - U. S. C. G.

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mlrmansion April 19 2014 at 12:38 AM

very very sad and tragic those poor children and adults the families are so devastated my heart goes out to them all

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donahuepapad123 April 19 2014 at 12:38 AM

georgechevrolet , AND I WOULD DISAGREE , ill bet that more captians of the worlds ships have the , HONOR , SENSE OF DUTY , PERSONAL INTEGRETY , AND COURAGE , to stay with thier ships until they have done everything humanly possible to get the passengers and crews off of thier vessels . and when that was done they should try to get off themselves for thier loved ones and themselves . the people that do this are not captains , they are cowards and have no right to be incharge of these vessels and crews ? but in some of these countries we have to understand that the story goes even deeper into the company and ship owners , how and who they higher and what is or isnt expected of them ??? either way the captain should have stayed and changed the orders to leave the rooms and go to the life boats ?? he is a dead man for leaving anyways . i would never go on any of these boats or planes overseas , and have always taught my children to be ready to think and take care of yourselves . i hope by some huge stroke of luck they find a lot more alive ? but ???

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1 reply
imdhunk donahuepapad123 April 19 2014 at 1:01 AM

I was extremely flabbergasted when I read in the news that the captain was one of the first to get off the ferry into the life boat leaving behind him a host of high schoolers and other passengers, there should've been some attempt to rescue what passengers he could... to me this was an act of cowardice in front to the entire world not to mention really losing face with his superiors, family, friends, and associates.

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boomboomsc April 18 2014 at 11:14 PM

Pain of the heart is felt the same no matter who you are. There are a lot of people hurting over this tragedy right now and we should all show respect for what they are feeling. Some of the things I have read on these pages are very disrespectful.

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Cincinnati Rick April 18 2014 at 10:09 PM

Give it a rest, people. So much Monday morning quarterbacking. So much rushing to judgment. We take so much for granted today but human life remains fragile and every activity, however mundane, entails risk.

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gerards2171 April 19 2014 at 8:21 AM

What ever happened to woman and children first. Lately the spineless Captains climb over everyone to jump ship. Let him rot in jail.

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