The detained captain of the Sewol ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea, leaving over 300 people missing or feared dead, has defended his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation by saying he was concerned passengers might “drift away and face many other difficulties”.
68-year-old Lee Joon-seok was arrested early on Saturday, and faces five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law after he “escaped before the passengers,” according to Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin.
The ship’s third mate, a 25-year-old woman identified only by her surname, Park, and helmsman Cho Joon-ki, 55, were also detained, and each face three related charges, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The accident occurred as the ship’s crew were manoeuvring a turn, Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said, adding that investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a move so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.
Yang added that Lee was not on the bridge when the Sewol was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together, even though the law requires the captain to be on the bridge in such situations to help the mate.
The other crew members arrested failed to reduce speed near the islands, conducted a sharp turn and failed to carry out necessary measures to save lives, Yang said.
A video aired by the Yonhap news agency showed that Lee among was the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.
South Korea ferry: Powerful images show dramatic rescue operation
South Korea ferry: Powerful images show dramatic rescue operation
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A view of the rescue operation underway after the ferry Sewol sank in waters off Jindo Island in the southwestern province of South Jeolla
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Coast Guard officers conduct a last-minute rescue operation around the passenger ferry Sewol sinking in waters off the southwestern coast of South Korea
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Helicopters head to aid the 476 passengers and crew aboard the South Korean ferry
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Coast Guard members rescuing passengers and crew aboard a South Korean ferry
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Coast Guard members in helicopters trying to rescue some of the 477 passengers and crew aboard a South Korean ferry that capsized on its way to Jeju island from Incheon
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Passengers are rescued by the Republic of Korea Coast Guard from a ferry sinking off the coast of Jindo Island
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Maritime officers (in black) try to rescue passengers (in orange coloured life vests) onboard South Korean ferry "Sewol" which capsized off Jindo April 16
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An injured passenger who was on a sinking ship, is rescued by South Korean maritime policemen, in the sea off Jindo
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An injured passenger is stretchered by rescue personnel after ferry Sewol sank in waters off Jindo Island
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Civilian divers jump into the sea to search for missing passengers in the sinking of the ferry Sewol off South Korea's southwestern coast
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South Korean ferry 'Sewol' is seen sinking at the sea off Jindo, as lighting flares are released for a night search
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A relative weeps as she waits for missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Jindo port
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
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A family member of a missing passenger who was on the South Korean ferry "Sewol", which sank at sea, is wheeled into an ambulance after collapsing as she waits for news of their family from a rescue team at a gym in Jindo April 17,
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A relative of a passenger on board a capsized ferry hits a South Korean government official as the official briefs the rescue situation at a gym in Jindo
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South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won (C) is hit by a water bottle thrown by families of missing passengers in the sinking of the ferry Sewol during his consolation visit to their shelter at a gym on Jindo Island
Speaking to reporters following his arrest as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed, Lee said: “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.”
"I gave instructions on the route, then briefly went to the bedroom when it [the sinking] happened," he said.
"At the time, the current was very strong, temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties.
"The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time," he added.
Helmsman Oh Yong-seok said it took 30 minutes for the captain to give the evacuation order as the boat listed, despite a transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange showing that officials at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Centre recommended evacuation just five minutes after the Sewol's distress call.
Several survivors said they never heard any evacuation order.
Cho, the arrested helmsman, said outside court: "There was a mistake on my part as well, but the steering (gear of the ship) was unusually turned a lot."
Prosecutors will have 10 days to decide whether to indict the captain and crew, but can request a 10-day extension from the court.
Meanwhile, on Saturday rescuers planned 40 dives in an attempt to enter the ferry and retrieve at least some of the more than 270 people still missing.
A civilian diver saw three bodies inside the ship through windows but was unable to break them, said said coast guard official Kwon Yong-deok.
The Sewol had left the north-western port of Incheon on Tuesday for 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 had capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore a little before 9am on Wednesday.
With only 174 known survivors 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 29th confirmed fatality, a woman, was recovered early on Saturday.
Navy divers have attached underwater air bags to the 6,852-ton ferry to prevent it from sinking deeper, and been pumping air into the ship to try to sustain any survivors, the Defence Ministry said.
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 to be inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer.
The country's last major ferry disaster was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.
Additional reporting by PA