(Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)
The 69-year-old captain and two crew members of a South Korean ferry that capsized earlier this week were arrested Saturday even as 273 people – mostly high school children aged 16 and 17 – remained missing and at least 30 others had been confirmed dead. The school's vice principal committed suicide out of guilt.
When the 6,825-ton ferry sank just after supposedly taking a sharp turn while on its way from the port of Incheon to the resort island of Jeju on Wednesday, there were 476 people on board, including 325 students of Danwon High School in Ansan in South Korea's Gyeonggi Province.
At least 30 have been confirmed dead, and 273 remain missing, according to local media.
On Saturday, divers could see three bodies floating through a window of a passenger cabin but they were unable to retrieve them, Reuters reported.
Hundreds of grieving and angry relatives and others have spent day and night in a gymnasium in the port of Jindo in South Jeolla Province, the rescue center for the operation, awaiting more information about their children. "Please lift the ship, so we can get the bodies out," the mother of a child, Kang Hyuck, was quoted as saying. "(President) Park Geun-hye should come here again."
The South Korean president visited the site Thursday.
Lee Joon-Seok, who was arrested Saturday, was a back-up captain of the ferry when it sank. Two other crew members were also arrested. They have been charged with negligence and failing to secure the safety of passengers in violation of maritime law, according to Strait Times.
Joon-Seok had asked all passengers to remain in their seats and cabins for more than 40 minutes after the ferry first sent a distress signal. Most passengers, therefore, could not reach evacuation points before the vessel listed sharply.
"At the time a rescue ship had not arrived. There were also no fishing boats around there for rescues or other ships to help," the captain was quoted as saying. "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."
Joon-Seok was resting when the ferry ran into trouble. "It happened as I was coming back after a quick visit to the bedroom for personal reasons," he said. "I did not drink [alcohol]."
He had handed over the ferry to a new employee, a 26-year-old woman identified only by her surname Park, about an hour before it capsized, according to Chosun newspaper. The captain has also been slammed for saving his own life while hundreds of the passengers were still struggling to evacuate. He allegedly fled the ferry before it capsized in the Yellow Sea.
"We still need to investigate where the captain was when the ship sank, as accounts conflict for now," Korean Herald quoted Lee Sung-yun, head of the investigation team, as saying.
Meanwhile, the 52-year-old vice principal of the high school, identified as Kang Min-Kyu and who survived the incident, committed suicide Friday. A note found in his wallet read, "It's too much for me to go on living alone while not knowing whether 200 [students] are dead or alive. I take all the responsibility. I'm the one who initiated the school trip. Throw my ash at the accident site."
Kang apparently hanged himself from a tree near the rescue center in Jindo, according to police.
Before leaving for the school trip, the students were excited and thinking of their parents, Lee Kyung-Won, owner of a book and stationery store beside the school, told USA Today. "They were buying cards to write messages for their parents and family. Most of the cards sold out because they bought so many, and so did the disposable rain coats."