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


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.


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

Captain of South Korea Ferry Apologizes

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ppolandrick April 23 2014 at 9:31 PM

I think it's a shame that after years of dedicated service, faced with a situation that required a very short time to make life and death decisions the man's career and legacy will be that his lapse in judgement is what he will be remembered for. I beleive the man will forever regret and die in perpetual shame that he didn't die on that boat Not every man is a Captain Sulley (although that is what we desire to be), cool under pressure and making sure all of his charges are safe before considering his own safety. Life delivers cruel circumstances.

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bubaxx32 April 24 2014 at 2:40 AM


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usonlymale April 24 2014 at 3:28 AM

Regarding the photo showing the ferry on its side still mostly afloat ...

If / with most passengers in their / or another room on whatever deck, they would be standing / lying on a wall. Depending where the exit door is for the room, all would need to get to an outside deck which is now almost vertical and more than likely have to go up to get on the afloat side - or to the area where the people are standing below the helo) ? You can see the stairwells on these open decks and the outside stairwell (that door would be above those below - tough to reach it). Those in rooms with the exit door above them would have had to had help in getting out; some may have had the exit door below them; while others may have had the exit door horizontally which may or may not have been reachable to exit. 30 crew members to assist 459 passengers in doing so would be a heroic task.

Bottomline, this would be frightening to think clearly - to help others out trapped in a room and to also navigate to get out to a top-side area to then be rescued from the side or to be able to jump into the firgid water itself.

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joshua25tree April 23 2014 at 8:35 PM

The captain had to have known a boat that size capsizing would become a tomb for all those souls that were told to stay inside-- better they faced cold water in life jackets, that would have been preferable to the nightmare those poor people had to go thru--a really unnecessary horrific tragedy.

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rohrscheibcroh April 23 2014 at 8:33 PM

I don't care what this guy looks like . what I hate is the insensitive pictures the media took of the grieving families

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simplewut April 24 2014 at 5:28 AM

to: brianjconway
You make me ashamed.
The American Indians used to share this continent's resources, but you squabble over their gifts. I look at Boston Harbor and I can not see the sea. I see only the back doors of condominiums. If you do not know the difference between "right and wrong", you need your "lawyers".

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Tuhloola11 April 23 2014 at 8:20 PM

Perhaps 40 years is too long, and apathy & sloppiness has set in. Whatever the reason, this guy is toast !!

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bbnpl4545 April 23 2014 at 8:20 PM

I don't think the safety plan was for a overloaded ship. Which would cut the time you would have to save anyone. I blame the ships owner for sending them out in a death trap.

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Ray Fennessy Sr. April 24 2014 at 6:35 AM

I have something to say about good health! I'm 85 yrs old and except for my knees, I'm in excellent health. I played racquetball fo 32 yrs. My health when I started p;aying wasn't too good. The job I had was very stressful but we just thought it was normal. I had 62 women and 8 men under my supervision. About health. I learned three very important things from Dr. Joel D. Wallach. He said,
"anyone who dies a natural death, dies from a nutrient defiency." Next he said," the body needs
91 nutrients working 7/24 to keep the body healthy". The body needs 60 minerals, 16 vitamins,
12 amino acids, and 3 (EFA's} essential fatty acids. I've added to this, very clean water, fresh air,
laughter, ( a friend asked me if I had to pick a desease between Parkinson's and Alzimers, which
would I pick. I said " I pick Parkinson's, I'd rather spill a little whisky than forget where I put the
bottle". I'm so old now I remember when the Dead Sea got sick! By the way, I've found the only way to get all 91 nutrients into the body and I've been doing this for almost 20 yrs. It works. Even
Dr. OZ dosen't know how to do this. R.J.F. Sr.

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1 reply
wiley1894 Ray Fennessy Sr. April 24 2014 at 8:37 AM

you made my day today------I am 77,retired pharmacist,--been there-more than not...USMC 1521232
not about yesterday-------51 year old wife still absolutely loves me...
like your positive attitude.....my knees don't work either---two replacements on the schedule...

I do doctors-----regularly and as scheduled.........life is the struggle------would like to see it as you do....


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Pete April 24 2014 at 6:40 AM

It's probably very easy to make bad decisions on a sinking ship.

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1 reply
bpante Pete April 24 2014 at 8:34 AM

It is. But if it's what you do, do it right.

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