Third mate was steering ferry for first time ever before capsize

Relatives of missing give DNA samples as South Korea rescue turns into mission to recover bodies

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 19:37

A 26-year-old third mate was steering a South Korean ferry through a notoriously treacherous waterway for the first time when it tilted and sank, prosecutors said today, as rescuers raced against time to find any survivors among the 266 missing passengers, many of them believed to have been trapped inside the capsized vessel.

Questions about the qualifications of the third mate, Park Han-gyeol, have mounted after investigators revealed that the ship’s captain, Lee Jun-seok (69) was in his quarters, leaving Ms Park in charge of the bridge when the ferry was negotiating the waterway 11 miles from Jindo Island.

“It was her first time steering the ship through the Maenggol Waterway,” said Yang Joong-jin, a senior prosecutor who is part of the government’s investigation. “There is nothing legally wrong with that. But it does give us important data on how well qualified she was.”

Relatives of some of the more than 200 children missing offered DNA swabs today to help identify the dead as a rescue turned into a mission to recover the vessel and the bodies of those on board.

The Sewol, carrying 476 passengers and crew, capsized on Wednesday on a journey from the port of Incheon to the southern holiday island of Jeju.

Mr Lee was arrested in the early hours of this morning on charges of negligence along with two other crew members, including the third mate who was steering at the time of the capsize.

Asked why the children had been ordered to stay put in their cabins instead of abandoning ship, Mr Lee, apparently overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, told reporters he feared they would have been swept out to sea in the strong, cold current.

“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 told reporters today as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed.

But he defended his much-criticised decision to wait about 30 minutes before ordering an evacuation.

“At the time, the current was very strong, the 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,” he said.

“The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time.”

Early reports said that the ferry turned sharply and listed, perhaps due to a shift in the cargo it was carrying and crew members said the captain, who was not initially on the bridge, had tried to right the ship but failed.

Some 500 relatives of the 272 people missing watched a murky underwater video shot after divers reported they had seen three bodies through the windows.