Lee Joon-seok, captain who left doomed ferry, had 40 years at sea

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Lee Joon-seok, captain who left doomed ferry, had 40 years at sea
Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok (C) is escorted upon his arrival at the Gwangju District Court in the southwestern South Korean city of Gwangju on June 24, 2014. Lee Joon-Seok and three crew members are accused of 'homicide through wilful negligence' -- a charge that falls between first-degree murder and manslaughter, but still carries the death penalty. Eleven other members of the crew are being tried on lesser charges of criminal negligence and violations of maritime law. The Sewol was carrying 476 passengers, including 325 students on a school trip, when it sank off the southwest coast on April 16. AFP PHOTO / WONSUK CHOI (Photo credit should read Wonsuk Choi/AFP/Getty Images)
GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA - NOVEMBER 11: (EDITORS NOTE: The identity of people in this image has been obscured at the request of the court) Sewol ferry crew members inside a court room in Gwangju at the start of the verdict proceedings on November 11, 2014 in Gwangju, South Korea. Lee Joon-Seok, the captain of the South Korean Ferry Sewol that sunk and caused 294 deaths and 10 missing in April 2014 was sentenced to 36 years in jail. (Photo by Ed Jones - Pool/Getty Images)
GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA - NOVEMBER 11: (EDITORS NOTE: The identity of people in this image has been obscured at the request of the court) Sewol ferry crew members inside a court room in Gwangju at the start of the verdict proceedings on November 11, 2014 in Gwangju, South Korea. Lee Joon-Seok, the captain of the South Korean Ferry Sewol that sunk and caused 294 deaths and 10 missing in April 2014 was sentenced to 36 years in jail. (Photo by Ed Jones - Pool/Getty Images)
GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA - NOVEMBER 11: (EDITORS NOTE: The identity of people in this image has been obscured at the request of the court) Sewol ferry crew members inside a court room in Gwangju at the start of the verdict proceedings on November 11, 2014 in Gwangju, South Korea. Lee Joon-Seok, the captain of the South Korean Ferry Sewol that sunk and caused 294 deaths and 10 missing in April 2014 was sentenced to 36 years in jail. (Photo by Ed Jones - Pool/Getty Images)
GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA - NOVEMBER 11: (EDITORS NOTE: The identity of people in this image has been obscured at the request of the court) Sewol ferry crew members inside a court room in Gwangju at the start of the verdict proceedings on November 11, 2014 in Gwangju, South Korea. Lee Joon-Seok, the captain of the South Korean Ferry Sewol that sunk and caused 294 deaths and 10 missing in April 2014 was sentenced to 36 years in jail. (Photo by Ed Jones - Pool/Getty Images)
FILE - In this April 16, 2014 file image taken from video released by News Y via Yonhap, passengers from the Sewol, a South Korean ferry sinking off South Korea's southern coast, are rescued by a South Korean Coast Guard helicopter in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul. Nearly a week after the sinking of the South Korean ferry, with rising outrage over a death count that could eventually top 300, the public verdict against the crew of the Sewol has been savage and quick. “Cowards!” social media users howled. “Unforgivable, murderous,” President Park Geun-hye said Monday of the captain and some crew. (AP Photo/Yonhap, File) KOREA OUT
Rescue helicopters fly over a sinking South Korean passenger ferry that was carrying more than 450 passengers, mostly high school students, Wednesday, April 16, 2014, off South Korea's southern coast. Hundreds of people are missing despite a frantic, hours-long rescue by dozens of ships and helicopters. At least four people were confirmed dead and 55 injured. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
Lee Joon-seok the captain of the sunken ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast, leaves a court which issued his arrest warrant in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, April 19, 2014. The investigation into South Korea's ferry disaster focused on the sharp turn it took just before it began listing and on the possibility that a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives, officials said Friday, as rescuers struggled to find some 270 people still missing and feared dead. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
Lee Joon-seok, center, the captain of the sunken ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast, talks to the media before leaving a court which issued his arrest warrant in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, April 19, 2014. The investigation into South Korea's ferry disaster focused on the sharp turn it took just before it began listing and on the possibility that a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives, officials said Friday, as rescuers struggled to find some 270 people still missing and feared dead. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
Lee Joon-seok, center, the captain of the sunken ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast, leaves a court which issued his arrest warrant in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, April 19, 2014. The investigation into South Korea's ferry disaster focused on the sharp turn it took just before it began listing and on the possibility that a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives, officials said Friday, as rescuers struggled to find some 270 people still missing and feared dead. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
FILE - In this April 19, 2014 file photo, Lee Joon-seok, center, the captain of the sunken ferry boat Sewol in the water off the southern coast, arrives at the headquarters of a joint investigation team of prosecutors and police in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea. A colleague calls Capt. Lee Joon-seok the nicest person on the ship. Yet there he was, captured in video on the day his ferry sank with hundreds trapped inside, being treated onshore after allegedly landing on one of the first rescue boats. (AP Photo/Yonhap, File) KOREA OUT
Lee Joon-seok, third from left, the captain of the ferry Sewol that sank off South Korea, and two crew members prepare to leave a court which issued their arrest warrant in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, April 19, 2014. The captain of the sunken ferry, leaving more than 300 missing or dead, was arrested early Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Two crew members also were taken into custody, including a mate who a prosecutor said was steering in challenging waters unfamiliar to her when the accident occurred. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
Lee Joon-seok, center, the captain of the sunken ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast, arrives at a court which issues his arrest warrant in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Friday, April 18, 2014. The investigation into South Korea's ferry disaster focused on the sharp turn it took just before it began listing and on the possibility that a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives, officials said Friday, as rescuers struggled to find some 270 people still missing and feared dead. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
Lee Joon-seok, the captain of a sunken ferry in the water off the southern coast arrives to be investigated at Mokpo Police Station in Mokpo, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank Wednsday, likely with scores of people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos, a crew member said Thursday. (AP Photo/Yonhap) KOREA OUT
Flares light up the sea for search and rescue teams during recovery operations at the site of the 'Sewol' ferry of the coast of the South Korean island on Jindo on April 22, 2014. Divers began to locate bodies on April 19 inside a submerged South Korean ferry as the detained captain defended his decision to delay evacuation of the ship when it capsized nearly four days ago with 476 people on board. AFP PHOTO / ED JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
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By YOUKYUNG LEE and FOSTER KLUG

MOKPO, South Korea (AP) -- A colleague calls Capt. Lee Joon-seok the nicest person on the ship. With more than 40 years' experience at sea, Lee could speak with eloquence about the romance and danger of a life spent on ships.

But his reputation now hinges on the moments last week when he delayed an evacuation and apparently abandoned the ferry Sewol as it went down, leaving more than 300 people missing or dead, most of them teenagers.

"He was generous, a really nice guy," said Oh Yong-seok, a 57-year-old helmsman, adding that the captain always asked about his wife and kids and was happy to dispense personal and professional advice. "He was probably the nicest person on the ship."

Still, there is no getting away from a video of Lee - on the day his ferry sank with hundreds of people trapped inside - being treated onshore after allegedly landing on one of the first rescue boats.

Lee and eight members of his crew have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. On Saturday, the handcuffed captain was paraded before flashing cameras, his face hidden beneath the dark hood of a windbreaker. He brusquely denied fleeing the ship, without elaborating, and said he delayed evacuation because of worries about sending passengers into cold waters and fast currents before rescuers arrived.

The fall from grace stands in stark contrast to Lee's striking portrayal, in interviews given to local media over the last decade, of a resilient and adventurous life spent at sea. It gives a chilling irony to his appearance on a 2010 travel show aired on cable broadcaster OBS, where he captained the Ohamana, another ferry that traveled the same Incheon-to-Jeju route plied by the Sewol.

"For those who are using our Incheon-to-Jeju ferry, I can tell you that the next time you return, it will be a safe and pleasant" experience, Lee said, dressed in a white captain's uniform with gold epaulets on the shoulders. "If you follow the instructions of our crew members, it will be safer than any other means of transportation."

Lee, 68, began his life at sea by chance, landing a job on a ship in his mid-20s. He worked on ocean freighters for the next 20 years before becoming a ferry captain, he said in a 2004 interview with Jeju Today, a Web-based news organization. He was then captain of another Incheon-to-Jeju ferry.

"The first ship I sailed on was a hardwood ship that flipped over in waters near Okinawa, Japan. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces saved me with their helicopters," Lee recalled. "If I hadn't been saved then, I wouldn't be here today."

Lee said there were times he thought about giving up sailing.

"When I got caught in a storm at sea, I told myself I would never get on a ship again. But the human mind is cunning. After getting over one crisis, I would forget about such thoughts, and I've been sailing on ships until this day," he told Jeju Today.

With a poetic flair, Lee spoke of the countless sunrises and sunsets he'd seen at sea.

"When the sun rises, the sea seems to bubble up and roar, but at sunset it's calm and quiet," Lee said. "I become solemn, and I think about past memories."

Lee also spoke of his pride in his work, even if it meant time away from his own family.

"I take comfort in carrying people on the ferry who are visiting their hometowns, helping them so they can spend happy times with their family, something that's not granted to me," Lee told Jeju Today. "Today or tomorrow, I will be with the ship."

The Sewol was a nearly 7,000-ton ship with a capacity of 921 passengers. Its owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., had three captains, including Lee, who took control of Sewol just 10 days each month when another captain went on vacation, said an official at Incheon Regional Maritime Affairs & Port Administration. The official declined to be identified, saying he was not authorized to speak about the case while prosecutors are investigating.

An unidentified Chonghaejin official told Yonhap News Agency that Lee had the longest sailing career of the three captains. Yonhap said Lee was believed to have joined Chonghaejin in November 2006 and to have sailed the route between Incheon and Jeju during his entire time with the company. The information couldn't be independently confirmed: Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd. has stopped taking calls from the media, and a company official refused to answer questions from reporters outside its Incheon office on Tuesday.

Crew members interviewed by The Associated Press knew little about the captain's personal life.

"Although we had no conversation about personal stuff, he was a nice guy," said Park Kyung-nam, another helmsman on the Sewol. He described a patient captain who would help crew members learn about parts of the ship they weren't familiar with.

Park and Oh, both of whom were on the bridge with the captain as the ship was sinking, each wondered whether the captain's age or the fact that he crashed into a door on the bridge, possibly injuring himself, may have been why he left the ship when he did.

"The captain is very old," Oh said. "But he should have made sure that the crew could escape before he escaped."

Jang Ki-joon, director of the orthopedic department at Jindo Hankook University, said he treated Lee after his rescue, and he had only light injuries. "Pain in the left rib and in the back, but that was it," he said.

He wore no crisp uniform, no epaulets. He looked no different from any other passenger in a video of him being treated. At the time, Jang said, he had no idea Lee was the captain.

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Klug wrote from Seoul, South Korea. AP writers Hyung-jin Kim in Mokpo and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.

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