South Korea ferry disaster: 'I bow my head in apology to the families', says captain

The captain says sorry, but anger rises for relatives of those on the capsized ferry

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The Independent Online

The helmsman steering the Sewol passenger ferry when it capsized and sank off the coast of South Korea has admitted making “a mistake”, after he was arrested along with the ship’s captain and third mate.

As hopes faded of finding any more survivors among the 270 people, including 250 schoolchildren, still believed to be inside the submerged ferry, investigators appeared to be focusing on a sharp turn made by the vessel and the possibility that this had caused cargo to shift in the hold.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68,  faces five charges including negligence of duty and breaching maritime law. He said yesterday: “I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims.” He also said: “I understand there are some things that are my fault.” He was not on the bridge when the ship got into trouble and has been heavily criticised after television footage showed that he was among the first survivors to arrive on shore.

The officer left in charge – named by another crew-mate as Third Mate Park Han-kyul, 25 – had only six months’ experience in the job, prosecutors said yesterday. She had not steered in the area before, someone else would normally have taken over, and she only did so because heavy fog had delayed the ferry’s departure.This was despite a law requiring captains be on the bridge as vessels pass through waters that are known to be difficult to navigate because of strong currents, small islands and rocks.

Relatives of the missing watch and wait yesterday

The arrested helmsman, Cho Joon-ki, 55, accepted some responsibility for the loss of the ship. “There was a mistake on my part as well,” he said, but he added that the steering had “ turned exceptionally faster than normal”. Ms Park and Mr Cho face being charged with three offences relating to the sinking.

South Korean officials warned that it could take two months to complete the recovery operation. However, experts said it was unlikely that a sharp turn alone could have capsized the ferry, and speculated that there must have been some other problem, such as cargo or ballast-water shifting. If a door on the roll-on, roll-off ferry had not sealed properly, seawater could have got on to the main vehicle deck and contributed to an irrecoverable list, as happened when the Herald of Free Enterprise sank in 1987 off Zeebrugge with the loss of 193 lives.

Captain Lee Joon-seok faces questions as he leaves court

Police raided offices of the ship’s operator, the Chonghaejin Marine Company, in Incheon, and 10 people were being questioned about the loading of the cargo of 180 vehicles and 1,157 tons of freight. At least some of the freight was in containers stacked on the foredeck.

Whatever the reason, there still appeared to have been time for people to evacuate the vessel – the 174 survivors were mostly rescued after they jumped into the sea.

As he left court, heading for a remand cell, Captain Lee defended his decision to wait about 30 minutes before giving the order to abandon ship, saying he feared people could have been swept away.

“At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the  water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without [proper] judgement, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” he said. “The rescue boats had not arrived, nor were there any civilian boats near by at that time.”

On his decision to leave the bridge, Captain Lee said that he had given instructions about which route to take and had gone only “ briefly” to his bedroom.

The strong currents continued to hamper the rescue operation yesterday, along with underwater visibility as low as seven inches (18cm). “We’ve yet to get any response from survivors underwater. Divers have continued all-out operations to enter cabins, while pumping air to help them breathe,” Coast Guard officer Choi Sang-hwan told The Korea Herald newspaper. The confirmed death toll stands at 32 – three bodies were seen through a window on the fourth floor of the ship but could not be retrieved as the window could not be broken – but this seems set to rise to more than 300, barring a miracle.

Bruce Reid, chief executive of the International Maritime Rescue Foundation, said the rescue operation was now “more of a recovery exercise”. “The chances of finding anyone alive now are almost zero … They’ll be looking for bodies,” he said. Relatives have begun providing DNA samples to help identify the dead.

However, the astonishing case of Harrison Okene, a 29-year-old ship’s cook from Nigeria, may offer some hope. He survived in a small air pocket in an upturned tugboat on the Atlantic ocean seabed – at a similar depth to the Sewol – for about two and a half days in December. A video captured the extraordinary moment when a diver reached for his hand – believing he had found a body – then realised Mr Okene, who appeared equally surprised, was alive.

On Jindo island, near the spot where Sewol sank, relatives’ frustration at the lack of progress boiled over into angry scenes. During a briefing by officials in a gymnasium, dozens of relatives surged forward, firing questions, and one tried to choke a Coast Guard lieutenant, then aimed a punch at a police officer.

“I know this has been a very difficult situation,” said Lee Jong-eui, a businessman whose nephew, Nam Hyun-chul, 17, is among the missing. “But aren’t people supposed to have faith in the government? The government should have hurried up and done something, but they just wasted four days. I think this is more like a man-made disaster.”

One parent, Kim Hoonmin, 42, whose daughter is missing, said he had hired a robot submarine to “try to shoot video of the inside of the boat so divers could analyse it”. He added: “We wanted the robot to clear a path for divers. But why do we have to do these things? Why aren’t the officials doing them?”

The relatives’ growing despair has been matched by the anguish of many of the survivors. Kang Min-gyu, 52, vice-principal of the school that many of the children attended, was among those rescued, but he was found hanged on Friday. In a suicide note, he said: “ Burn my body and scatter my ashes at the site of the sunken ferry. Perhaps I can become a teacher for the missing students in my next life.” A hospital official said they were keeping “a close eye” on the other survivors, saying 44 were exhibiting signs of depression or anxiety at what appeared to be “dangerous levels”.

Chonghaejin said that the 15 crew with responsibility for steering the vessel had all survived. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency noted this was in “stark contrast” to the 75 out of 325 secondary schoolchildren – 23 per cent – who were rescued.

Captain Malcolm Mathison, vice-chairman of the UK’s Merchant Navy Association, who previously worked inspecting the seaworthiness of vessels, described the scenes on the ship after it began to list – revealed in camera-phone images taken by passengers – as “just a shambles”. “What surprised me was seeing photographs … of kids cowering or taking shelter under cupboards, under tables. You need to be out in the open,” he said, adding that “ seaworthiness” included the abilities of the crew.