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Captain of sunken S. Korean ferry, 2 crew arrested

Saturday - 4/19/2014, 4:04am  ET

South Korean navy personnel on boats search passengers of the sunken ferry Sewol in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, April 19, 2014. The captain of the sunken South Korean ferry was arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, as investigators looked into whether his evacuation order came too late to save lives. Two crew members were also arrested, a prosecutor said. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

FOSTER KLUG
Associated Press

MOKPO, South Korea (AP) -- The captain of the ferry that sank off South Korea, leaving more than 300 missing or dead, was arrested early Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need -- three of whom were seen lifeless in the drowned vessel by a diver who was unable to get them out.

Rescuers planned 40 dives Saturday in an attempt to enter the ferry and retrieve at least some of the more than 270 people missing. A civilian diver saw the three bodies inside the ship through windows but was unable to break the windows, said Kwon Yong-deok, a coast guard official. Strong currents and rain made it difficult to get inside the ferry, where most of the passengers are believed to have been trapped, coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said.

So far 29 bodies have been recovered since Wednesday's disaster off the southern South Korea coast. As the last bit of the sunken ferry's hull slipped Friday beneath the murky water off southern South Korea, there was a new victim: a vice principal of the high school whose students were among the passengers was found hanged, an apparent suicide.

Prosecutors said the ferry captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested early Saturday along with the third mate, a 25-year-old woman identified only by her surname, Park, and helmsman Cho Joon-ki, 55. Lee faces five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, and the crew members each face three related charges, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Investigators said the accident came at a point where the ship had to make a turn, and prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.

The sharp turn came between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m., but it's not known whether it was done voluntarily or because of some external factor, said Nam Jae-heon, a spokesman for the Maritime Ministry.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said earlier that Lee was not on the bridge when the ferry Sewol was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together. Yang said the law requires the captain to be on the bridge in such situations to help the mate.

Yang said Lee also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, saying "The captain escaped before the passengers." Video aired by Yonhap showed Lee among the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.

"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," Lee told reporters after his arrest, as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed.

"I gave instructions on the route, then briefly went to the bedroom when it (the sinking) happened," he said.

The captain defended his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation.

A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange shows that an official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center recommended evacuation just five minutes after the Sewol's distress call. But helmsman Oh Yong-seok told The Associated Press that it took 30 minutes for the captain to give the evacuation order as the boat listed. Several survivors told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.

"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," Lee told reporters. "The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships other boats nearby at that time."

Yang said 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.

Cho, the helmsman arrested, accepted some responsibility outside court. "There was a mistake on my part as well, but the steering (gear of the ship) was unusually turned a lot," he told reporters.

Prosecutors will have 10 days to decide whether to indict the captain and crew, but can request a 10-day extension from the court.

The Sewol had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on 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 capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore a little before 9 a.m. Wednesday.

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