World / Asia-Pacific

Sharp turn by officer led to ferry sinking

By Jungmin Jang and Ju-min Park in Mokpo and Jindo, South Korea (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-19 07:21

Sharp turn by officer led to ferry sinking
A Buddhist monk prays for missing passengers, including many schoolchildren, who were on the South Korean ferry Sewol, which sank off Jindo. The monk accompanied family members who gathered in Jindo on Friday. Issei Kato / Reuters  

South Korea investigates vessel's crew members as weather worsens

A junior officer was steering a South Korean ferry when it capsized two days ago, investigators said on Friday, as rescuers battled strong tides and murky waters to search for hundreds of missing, many of them schoolchildren, feared trapped in the vessel.

Local media said the Sewol ferry may have made a sharp turn during its journey on Wednesday, which caused its cargo to shift and the boat to list sharply and begin to sink.

Investigators declined to comment on the reports.

Twenty-eight passengers are listed as dead, 179 have been rescued and 268 are missing, presumed trapped in the vessel, out of 475 passengers and crew. The ship was sailing from the port of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju.

Many of the missing are teenagers from a school on the outskirts of Seoul, and hopes are fading that any will be found alive.

"We cannot even see the ship's white color. Our people are just touching the hull with their hands," Kim Chun-il, a diver from Undine Marine Industries, told relatives gathered near the site of the rescue effort in the port city of Jindo.

Kim said two divers had to return to the surface when an air pump stopped and said strong tides were impeding the rescue.

Rescuers have pumped air into the vessel, but divers have not yet entered areas of the ship where many of the missing are believed to be.

Coast Guard officials have said the investigation was focused on possible crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and structural defects of the vessel, although the ship appears to have passed all of its safety and insurance checks.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, faces criminal investigation, which is standard procedure in South Korea.

Lee, 69, and the company that owns the ship have apologized for the loss of life, although neither has admitted responsibility.

Investigators said Lee may not have been on the bridge at the time of the accident and the vessel was being steered by the third mate, although shipping crew said this was standard practice.

The ferry went down in calm conditions and was following a frequently traveled 400 km route. Although relatively close to shore, the area was free of rocks and reefs.

Captain, crew blamed

Parents of the missing schoolchildren blamed the ship's captain for the tragedy after he and shipping company officials made emotional apologies for the loss of life.

Some heckled South Korean President Park Geun-hye when she visited the site on Thursday.

Witnesses have said that the captain and some of the crew left the vessel while others instructed passengers to remain in place as it began to sink.

Relatives were in mourning overnight in a hospital in Mokpo, close to Jindo, which is acting as a rescue center. Some of them spoke bitterly of the captain.

"How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?" said Ham Young-ho, grandfather of 17-year-old Lee Da-woon, who was confirmed dead.

The captain has not made any public statement on whether or why he may have left the vessel before many of the passengers.

Prosecutors and police said Friday they have asked a court to issue arrest warrants for the captain.

The ferry owner's record is also under investigation, and documents were removed from its headquarters in Incheon on Friday.

Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, the owner of the vessel, is an unlisted company that operates five ships. It reported an operating loss of 785 million won ($756,000) last year.

According to South Korea's Financial Supervisory Service, a government body, Chonghaejin is "indirectly" owned by two sons of the owner of a former shipping company called Semo Marine that went bankrupt in 1997.

Sewol is 20 years old and built in Japan and was acquired secondhand by the Korean operator.


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