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
Friends, relatives and neighbors gather for a candlelight vigil at Danwon High School. The woman’s sign reads ‘Sons and daughters! Please come back. Be strong and we are sorry.’ Photograph: Shannon Jensen/Getty Images
Lee Joon-seok (2nd R), captain of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol, arrives at the headquarters of a joint investigation team of prosecutors and police in Mokpo today. Photograph: Reuters
Family members of missing passengers onboard the South Korean ferry Sewol which capsized on Wednesday, watch an underwater video footage taken by a diver near the sunken ship, at a gym in Jindo today. Photograph: Reuters
A family member of missing passengers (C) on the sunken ferry Sewol, hits a maritime policeman at Jindo gymnasium on Jindo Island today. Photograph: EPA
The family member of a missing passenger from the capsized South Korean ferry “Sewol” cries at a port where family members have gathered to wait for news from rescuers, in Jindo today. Photograph: Reuters
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.
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.
The official number of those missing was revised up from an earlier estimate of 269.
Packed in a gymnasium in the port city of Jindo day and night since Wednesday, tempers frayed and fist fights broke out after the video was shown. The video, viewed by relatives and journalists, did not appear to show any corpses.
“Please lift the ship, so we can get the bodies out,” a woman who identified herself as the mother of a child called Kang Hyuck said, using a microphone.
Relatives have criticised what they say is the slow response of the government and contradictory information given out by authorities in the early stages of the rescue mission.
President Park Geun-hye was jeered by some when she visited on Thursday. “Park Geun-hye should come here again,” Kang Hyuck’s mother said.
Three cranes were moved close to the sunken ship today but were not deployed. Strong tides and rough weather again impeded efforts to get inside.
Coastguard spokesman Kim Jae-in said the cranes would be deployed when the divers say it is safe.
“Lifting the ship does not mean they will remove it completely from the sea. They can lift it two to three metres off the seabed,” he said.
Coastguard officials said that divers would make another attempt to enter the ship in the evening.
“The chances of finding anyone alive now are almost zero,” said Bruce Reid, chief executive officer of the International Maritime Rescue Foundation.
“There will still be a search operation on the water, a surface search, but it would be more of a recovery exercise now. They’ll be looking for bodies.”
The capsize occurred in calm weather on a well-travelled 400 km sea route from Incheon to Jeju some 25 km from land.
Police also raided Chonghaejin offices in Incheon and Yang Joong-jin, a prosecutor in the city of Mokpo, said ten people were being questioned over the loading and stowing of the Sewol’s cargo.
Yonhap news agency said 180 vehicles were onboard the ferry along with 1,157 tons of freight. At least some of the freight was in containers stacked on the foredeck.
Relatives and friends of the schoolchildren have also gathered at the Danwon High School in the commuter town of Ansan.
The vice-principal of the school, Kang Min-gyu (52) was one of those rescued as the children followed orders and stayed aboard. He hanged himself outside the gym in Jindo, police said.
His body was discovered yesterday and police released part of a two-page suicide note.
“Burn my body and scatter my ashes at the site of the sunken ferry,” he wrote. “Perhaps I can become a teacher for the missing students in my next life.”