The captain of a South Korean ferry that capsized three days ago, leaving 28 people dead and 268 missing, has been arrested and charged.
Lee Joon-seok faces five charges, including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
A joint investigation team of police and prosecutors on Friday had sought arrest warrants for Lee, 52, and two of his crew, without specifying charges.
Yonhap says a local court in Mokpo had issued warrants for him and two other crew members, citing the possibility that they may flee or destroy evidence.
During his police arraignment, Lee defended his decision not to issue a mandatory evacuation immediately when the ship started listing.
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.
“At the time a rescue ship had not arrived. There were also no fishing boats around there for rescues or other ships to help,” he 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.
Earlier, prosecutors said Lee had handed the helm to his third officer before the ferry capsized.
The ship captain has come under scrutiny after witnesses said he was among the first to escape the sinking vessel, which was on a 400-kilometre voyage from the port city of Incheon to the Korean holiday island of Jeju.
Earlier, Park Kyoung-nam, who was working in the ship’s wheelhouse, told reporters he was unsure if an evacuation order he said was made by the captain was received by passengers.
“The captain made the order, but I do not know if it was properly communicated,” he said.
“What is announced through the speakers in the cabin cannot really be heard in the wheelhouse because they have different microphone systems.”
Crew interviews to give insight into accident cause: expert
Captain James Staples, a US-based maritime safety consultant, told the AM program that authorities should be able to determine the cause of the accident through interviews with the captain and crew, without pulling the vessel from the water.
“[The captain] should be able to answer probably 80 per cent of the questions, along with the chief engineer,” he said.
“They should be able to come to some kind of conclusion as to what happened, putting together the bridge team to see where the position of the vessel was.
“They don’t need the ship right now, but they could use the ship later on for forensics if she does indeed have what we call a VDR – a voice data recorder – which is very similar to what airlines have with black boxes.”
He says authorities will have broader questions about the safety protocols on the vessel.
“What we need to look at is to see what the procedures and protocols were for lashing of cargo on that type of vessel, and to see if it was being done or if the crew had been complacent. From what I understand … they hadn’t even run evacuation drills on board the ship.
“So it sounds like there may be some training issues here we have to look at, some complacency with being on runs for a long period of time. There’s quite a few things we need to look at, but training would be the first one I would be looking at.”
Divers unable to access passenger area
Meanwhile, the vice principal of a South Korean high school, who accompanied hundreds of pupils on the ferry and survived, has committed suicide.
Kang Min-gyu, 52, had been missing since Thursday. His body was found outside a gym in the port city of Jindo where relatives of the people missing on the ship, mostly children from the school, were gathered.
Authorities are still searching for any survivors of the maritime disaster, which is South Korea’s worst in 21 years, based on possible casualties.
Divers gained access to the cargo deck of the ferry on Friday, although that was not close to the passenger quarters, according to a coastguard official.
Other coastguard officials said that divers made several attempts to make it to the passenger areas but failed.
Marine salvage expert Captain John Noble has told the ABC it would be a “miracle” if anyone were found alive inside the sunken ferry.
“The water temperature is about 12 degrees. It is now many hours … since the tragedy occurred. People just cannot survive in water at that temperature for that length of time and if they found an air pocket I doubt that there would be much chance of survival by now.
“If there is, it would be a miracle.”
Cranes have been deployed near the wreck site as preparations begin to raise the ship.