Sewol Captain blames the delayed evacuation ships

The arrested captain of the South Korean ferry that capsized with 476 people on board said on Saturday he had delayed evacuating the ship because of the sea conditions and the absence of rescue ships.

Sewol Captain blames the delayed evacuation ships
19 April 2014 - 11:48

The arrested captain of the South Korean ferry that capsized with 476 people on board said on Saturday he had delayed evacuating the ship because of the sea conditions and the absence of rescue ships.

Lee Joon-seok and two of his crew were taken into police custody in the early hours of the morning, charged with negligence and failing to secure the safety of passengers in violation of maritime law.

A prosecutor said the third mate who was steering the ferry at the time of the accident was navigating those waters for the first time.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin told reporters the 25-year-old mate was steering the ship as it passed through an area with lots of islands clustered close together and fast currents.

Yang said another mate usually took control through the area but that changed because heavy fog caused a delay in departure.

During his police arraignment, during which he stood, head bowed, in a hooded raincoat, Lee was asked by TV reporters why passengers had been ordered to remain in their seats and cabins for more than 40 minutes after the ferry first sent a distress signal just before 9am local time on Wednesday.

"At the time a rescue ship had not arrived. There were also no fishing boats around there for rescues or other ships to help," Lee said.

"The currents were very strong and water was cold at that time in the area.

"I thought that passengers would be swept far away and fall into trouble if they evacuated thoughtlessly without wearing lifejackets.

"It would have been the same even if they did wear lifejackets," he said.

Furious relatives of the hundreds of passengers still missing – most of them schoolchildren – believe many more would have escaped if they had moved to evacuation points before the ship listed sharply and water started flooding in.

Thirty two people have been confirmed dead in the disaster, with 272 still missing.

Meanwhile, relatives of the victims have begun providing DNA samples to help identify bodies recovered from the wreckage.

As the arrests were being made, dive teams who had spent two days vainly battling powerful currents and near zero visibility finally penetrated the passenger decks of the Sewol.

"Civilian divers spotted three bodies through a window," said Choi Sang-Hwan, deputy director of the national coastguard.

"They attempted to get in and retrieve them by cracking the window, but it was too difficult," he said in a briefing to relatives of the missing.

Many of the more than 500 divers working on the rescue teams are civilian volunteers.

Nets would be placed around the submerged ferry to prevent any bodies drifting away during the eventual recovery process, Choi said, adding that the rescue teams had not given up hope of finding survivors trapped in air pockets.

Lee, 69, confirmed statements by investigative prosecutors on Friday that he was not at the helm of the ferry when it first ran into trouble.

"It happened as I was coming back after a quick visit to the bedroom for personal reasons," he said, denying any suggestion that he had been intoxicated.

"I did not drink," he said.

His comments offered no fresh insight into the chain of events that caused the 6,825-ton Sewol to sink.

Tracking data from the maritime ministry showed the vessel made a sharp turn just before sending its first distress signal.

Some experts believe a tight turn could have dislodged heavy cargo – including more than 150 vehicles –and destabilised the vessel, causing it to list heavily and then capsize.

But others suggested the turn might have been caused by a collision with a rock or other submerged object.

Investigators said the third officer was steering when the accident happened.

Lee acknowledged the charges brought against him and apologised to the victims of the disaster and their relatives.

"I sincerely apologise to people and the bereaved families for stirring up trouble," he said.

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