The captain of the Sewol ferry in South Korea could face a criminal investigation amid unconfirmed claims he abandoned ship after it capsized with over 470 passengers, most of them school students, on board.
Lee Joon-seok, 69, is being questioned, coastguard officials said, amid reports that he was one of the first to jump to safety from the stricken vessel.
Some survivors told local media Lee was one of the first to be rescued, although none actually saw him leave the ship. The coastguard and the ferry operator declined to comment.
A crew member has since claimed an immediate evacuation order was not issued because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilise the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos.
Oh Yong-seok, 58, said he wasn't sure if the captain's order, given to crew members, was actually relayed to passengers on the public address system. Several survivors also said they did not hear an evacuation order.
The exact cause of the incident has not yet been established and Lee is currently being investigated by police, according to local media. "I am really sorry and deeply ashamed. I don't know what to say," he was shown as saying on local television.
At a press conference today, the Chief of the West Regional Headquarters of the South Korean Coastguard Kim Soo-hyun said he would approve civilian divers who wanted to assist the search, providing there was "trust" between them and official search teams.
Speaking today, South Korean President Park Geun-hye urged rescue teams to "hurry" as time was running out in the hunt for survivors
Earlier, relatives waiting desperately for news of their loved ones reacted with fury when Prime Minister Chung Hong-won visited a gymnasium in Jindo, a nearby island, with some throwing water at him.
Another relative hit a government official briefing those who had gathered at the gym on the rescue operation following reports that passengers had been told to stay on the ship as it sank.
Grieving parents also accused rescue teams of being slow to react and of providing a lack of information.
As frustration grew, some parents of missing school children hired their own boat on Wednesday night. They appeared to blame the government of President Park Geun-hye and rescue officials for not making a big enough effort.
"Since the government refused to take us to the scene, 11 parents chipped in 61,000 won ($58.79) each to hire a boat and took a reporter and a diver. But there was no rescue operation going on," one father said.
Earlier, rescue teams hammered on the hull of the upturned, mostly submerged vessel, hoping for a response from anyone trapped inside, but they heard nothing, local media reported.
Some 325 school children from the Danwon High School in Ansan, a Seoul suburb, were among the passengers on board the vessel, which was heading to the popular tourist island of Jeju. Nine people have been found dead and at least 280 are still missing.
Teams of divers fought rising winds, strong waves and murky waters through the night to locate those missing after the MV Sewol sank off the south-western coast of South Korea.
The dramatic rescue operation began two hours after the ship started listing severely and the ferry filled with water. Several survivors said passengers were told to remain where they were by on board announcements.
Cha Eun-ok, who was on the deck taking photographs at the time, said an “on-board announcement told people to stay put... people who stayed are trapped”.Reuse content