South Korea ferry: Warrant for captain Lee Joon-seok's arrest is sought as investigators say third officer 'had helm' when ship capsized

Picture purports to show the moment the captain left the sinking ship

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Prosecutors in South Korea have asked a court to issue an arrest warrant for the captain of the ferry which capsized with over 470 people on board, as pictures purporting to show the moment he left the ship have emerged.

Arrest warrants are also being sought for two other crew members following a court appeal, prosecutors said today.

The move came as authorities involved in the rescue operation for passengers on the ferry said captain Lee Joon-seok gave the wheel to a third officer before it began sinking off South Korea’s southwestern coast.

Investigators said that Lee may not have been on the ship's bridge at the time of the accident and the vessel was being steered by the third mate, a normal situation on many ship journeys.

The investigation is now focusing on whether a a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives, officials said Friday.  A transcript of the final communications between the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center (VTS) on Jeju Island and the ferry has been released, beginning with the distress call.

One of helmsman of the ship claimed he saw Lee rushed back to the bridge after it started listing severely and tried in vain to right the vessel.

"I'm not sure where the captain was before the accident. However right after the accident, I saw him rushing back into the steering house ahead of me," Oh Young-seok, who was off duty at the time, said.


Investigators have said claims that the ship could have made a “drastic turn” on Wednesday, causing its cargo to shift and the boat to list, are also being investigated as the search for survivors enters its third day.

Twenty-eight people have now been confirmed dead and 179 people have been rescued so far.

Divers have been working against strong currents and poor weather to access the sunken ship overnight as a total of 268 people, many of whom were high school students, are still missing.

Divers have also begun injecting air into the ship in an attempt to sustain potential survivors and to help the Sewol vessel float. Teams have reportedly managed to access the restaurant of the ferry and the bridge, but students are believed to be on a different floor.

"We have confirmed that the captain of the Sewol left the wheel to a third officer before the ship began sinking," chief investigator Park Jae-eok was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency.

"We are investigating whether the captain left the pilothouse," he added.

"Though surviving crews have different testimonies about the situation, we've been investigating the captain as he was suspected to leave the steering room for an unknown reason.”

"Whether or not they took a drastic turnaround is under investigation," Mr Park said.

The captain could still face a criminal investigation, which is standard procedure in South Korea.

Both the 69-year-old Lee and the company that owns the ship have apologised for the loss of life, although neither has admitted responsibility.

The exact cause of the accident has not been established, but experts have also suggested the ship could have also hit a rock as it travelled from Incheon to the popular tourist island of Jeju.

Some 325 school children from the Danwon High School in Ansan, a Seoul suburb, were on board and some of the survivors have said those who listened to announcements to stay put are the ones who were left trapped on the sinking ship.

korea-9.jpgParents waiting at a make shift rescue centre in a hospital in the city of Mokpo, close to the port city of Jindo expressed their anger at witness reports that passengers were told not to evacuate.

"How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?" one asked.

"I want to jump into the water with them," said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of another missing student, Park Ye-ji. "My loved one is under the water and it's raining. Anger is not enough."