The South Korean coast guard searches for missing passengers at the site of the sunken ferry off the coast of Jindo Island in Jindo-gun, South Korea, on April 20, 2014.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye said the actions of the crew on a ferry that sank last week were “like murder” and called for a thorough investigation of the incident that left more than 300 dead or missing.
“The actions of the captain and some crew members just cannot be understood with common sense, they are like murder and should not be tolerated,” Park told her senior secretaries today, according to a report of the meeting issued by the presidential office. “Lumps of shock and rage are developing in the hearts of not only me but also of the people.”
The team investigating the sinking of the ferry that carried 476 people, most of them high school students, is focusing on why the vessel turned sharply before it listed and sank off the country’s southwestern coast on April 16. Prosecutors overnight arrested four crew members accused of abandoning passengers and violation of maritime law, prosecutor Ahn Sang Don told reporters in Mokpo. He identified them as two first-ranked officers, Kang and Shin, one second-ranked officer named Kim and an engineer named Park.
The captain and two other crew members have already been arrested and face charges including accidental homicide.
The inquiry intensified as divers continued to search the submerged ship in the hope of finding survivors trapped in air pockets. More guide lines have been snaked into the ferry to aid in the search, and rescuers were expecting to reach the vessel’s dining hall, where survivors say many passengers were at the time of the incident, at about 12 p.m. local time.
More bodies were found this morning, bringing the total recovered to 64, Ko Myung Suk, director general of the equipment and technology bureau at the Korea Coast Guard, said at a press briefing in Jindo. Rescuers saved 174 people as the boat sank Apr. 16. The largest group of passengers was the 339 Danwon High School students and their teachers on an excursion to Jeju island. Medical staff on Jindo island, where families of missing passengers assembled, were collecting DNA samples to help with identification of the dead.
The ferry Sewol’s third mate, surnamed Park, was arrested April 19 along with the captain and a helmsman. She hasn’t given a clear answer as to why the ship veered so sharply, prosecutor Yang Joong Jin told reporters yesterday in Mokpo. It was Park’s first time trying to steer the ship through a waterway known for rough currents, investigators have said.
Captain Lee Joon Seok, 68, who wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the incident, appears to have escaped before the passengers, while investigators need more information about where other crew members were at the time of the incident, prosecutor Ahn said.
Prosecutors earlier said Lee was 69 based on a Korean tradition of including the year before birth in calculating ages. He was born in November 1945, according to records released by the hospital.
Park and a helmsman named Cho, who was on the bridge with her, face three charges, including accidental homicide and violation of maritime laws. The pair’s comments on the ferry’s sudden turn don’t match, Ahn said, without elaborating.
Investigators have focused on the crew members’ actions up to the incident, with less attention so far given to what they did afterward, Yang said yesterday. The joint coast guard and prosecution team is still analyzing phone messages sent by people on the vessel including messages sent on Kakao Corp.’s KakaoTalk application, Ahn said today.
The investigation also includes the communications made between crew members via walkie-talkie, he said.
The coast guard raided the office of the ferry’s owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co., in Incheon on April 17. Kim Han Shik, the chief executive officer of Chonghaejin Marine, said his company had committed a “terrible sin.” Kim was speaking at a press briefing at Incheon port on April 17 that was broadcast on MBN TV.
Investigators are also looking into modifications made to expand passenger and cargo capacity on the 20-year-old ship. The ferry will need to be raised before investigators can assess whether it had any defects, Ahn said.
The Sewol, which means “Time and Tide” in Korean, passed safety inspections for the expansion work at a check between October 2012 and February 2013, said an official from the Korean Register of Shipping, which conducted the test. The official asked not to be identified, citing company policy.
Chonghaejin Marine had modified the vessel to carry an additional 117 passengers, expanding the total capacity including crew to 956 people, the Korean Register official said.
Investigators are planning to summon about 20 officials from Chonghaejin Marine and the company which did the expansion work for questioning, Ahn said, without naming the company.
The vessel was built by Japan’s Hayashikane Dockyard Co. in 1994 and had no accidents during 18 years of operation in Japan, according to Takaharu Miyazono, a spokesman for A-Line, the previous owner. It sold the ferry to the Korean company in October 2012, Miyazono said.
Investigators have declined to say whether passengers received an order to evacuate as the vessel listed.
“The announcements to stay on the vessel were issued because rescue boats hadn’t yet arrived,” Lee, the captain, told reporters in Mokpo as he was taken into custody, flanked by the two crew members. The comments were broadcast on YTN TV.
“The currents were extremely fast. The water was cold,” he said. “Even if life jackets were worn, if we abandon the ship without a clear judgment you can be dragged far away. I judged that there would be many complications.”
The ferry left Incheon, near Seoul, around 9 p.m. local time on April 15, after fog delayed the departure by more than two hours, according to an Incheon port official. The ship was en route to Jeju island, a popular tourist resort in the south, on a trip that typically takes about 14 hours.
At around 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. the next day, two announcements called on passengers to don life jackets and stay put because the ferry was tilting, crew member Oh Young Seok said in an April 18 interview at a hospital in Mokpo. Oh, 57, wasn’t on the bridge at the time of the incident and was rescued on the same boat as eight other crew members.
The ferry first contacted authorities at 8:55 a.m. on April 16 to request coast guard assistance, according to an audio clip of the exchange issued by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
“Ship has listed a lot. Can’t move. Please come quick,” the ferry told the Vessel Traffic Services on Jeju island, its destination.
Its first contact with VTS on Jindo, closest to where the ferry sank, came at 9:07 a.m., according to a transcript released by the coast guard yesterday. At 9:12 a.m., Jindo VTS asked if passengers were in lifeboats.
“No, not yet. We can’t move because the ship is tilted,” the Sewol crew member replied. That crew member wasn’t the ferry’s captain, Ahn the prosecutor said, based on the investigation team’s findings so far.