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South Korean Ferry Crew Actions ‘Like Murder,’ Park Says

By Heesu Lee and Sam Kim
April 21, 2014 12:27 PM EDT 32 Comments
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, cemter, talks with relatives of missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Jindo gymnasium in Jindo-gun, South Korea on April 17, 2014.
Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, cemter, talks with relatives of missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Jindo gymnasium in Jindo-gun, South Korea on April 17, 2014.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye compared the actions of the crew on a ferry that sank last week to murder and promised 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 yesterday, 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 probing 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 April 16. Four more crew members were arrested and accused of abandoning passengers and violating maritime law, prosecutor Ahn Sang Don told reporters yesterday. The captain and two other crew members were previously placed under arrest.

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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 trying to reach the vessel’s dining hall, where survivors say many passengers were at the time of the incident.

Bodies Recovered

More than 20 bodies were found yesterday, bringing the total recovered to 87, Yonhap News reported. Rescuers saved 174 people as the boat sank. 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 captain and two crew members already under arrest face charges including accidental homicide. An engineer crew member, who wasn’t arrested, tried to commit suicide after questioning, Ahn said. Investigators haven’t ruled out pressing charges against more crew members, he said.

The ferry’s third mate was arrested April 19. She hasn’t given a clear answer as to why the ship veered so sharply, prosecutor Yang Joong Jin told reporters April 20 in Mokpo. It was her first time trying to steer the ship through a waterway known for rough currents, investigators have said.

Abandoning Ship

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.

Investigators have focused on the crew members’ actions up to the incident, with less attention so far given to what they did as it unfolded, Yang said April 20. The joint coast guard and prosecution team is analyzing phone messages sent by people on the vessel including those sent on Kakao Corp.’s KakaoTalk application, Ahn said.

Some of the crew members may also not have received safety training, Ahn said.

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.

Ship Modifications

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.

Japanese Dockyard

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 are still trying to find out whether passengers received an evacuation order, after first being told to stay in position, Ahn said. President Park said yesterday only one of the 46 lifeboats supposed to be on the Sewol was deployed as the ferry 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.

Life Jackets

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 April 20. 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.

To contact the reporters on this story: Heesu Lee in Seoul at hlee425@bloomberg.net; Sam Kim in Seoul at skim609@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net; Brian Fowler at bfowler4@bloomberg.net Heather Langan

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