The captain of a ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea on Wednesday has said he is “sorry” for his part in the sinking of the vessel. He also stated that the delay in evacuation orders occurred because of a fear that passengers would “drift away” were they told to abandon ship. His apology comes after both himself and two crew members were arrested on Friday to faces charges of violation of maritime law and negligence of duty.
Two buoys mark the location of the incident as the ferry itself is now completely submerged in the ocean south-west of South Korea, and divers are preparing for a fourth day underwater in the hope of finding more of the 270 people still unaccounted for. The death toll lies at 32 so far but is expected to increase dramatically as the search continues, with officials in charge of the process estimating it “may last one or two months.” Three more bodies were seen in the ship yesterday but workers were unable to retrieve them, further increasing an ever-unstable sense of anxiousness for the families back onshore. Bad weather conditions are likely to hamper the already difficult rescue effort, and poor visibility makes simply finding victims of the disaster challenging.
The 69-year-old captain, Lee Joon-seok, explained how he was unsure whether ordering an evacuation from the ferry would leave people in the best situation, as a cold ocean temperature and strong currents might lead them to “face many other difficulties”. It has been reported that instruction from crew members to passengers was to stay onboard, despite the ship tilting significantly to one side at the time. Joon-seok claimed that rescue boats still had not arrived when it began to fully capsize, but went on to say “I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance.” Maritime officials recommended an evacuation delay no longer than 5 minutes after the distress call was raised, but the captain waited almost thirty minutes before giving such an order.
Cho Joon-ki, helmsman of the ferry (called Sewol) and one of the two other crewmen arrested, admitted wrongdoing on his own behalf but also described his surprise at the way in which the ship reacted. “The steering [gear] turned further than it was supposed to,” he said, as investigators turned their attention to a sharp turn Sewol took before it started to tilt. Some experts believe that this manoeuvre could have caused heavy cargo to become loose and eventually unbalance the listing vessel.
As time goes on, the chances of finding survivors from the wreckage continue to get lower, and there are plans to put netting around the ferry in order to stop bodies drifting away. Air has been pumped into the vessel with the intention of aiding those still trapped inside and to help bring it closer to the surface.
The enquiry into Sewol’s fate has already begun, with focus being on whether the evacuation delay put the lives of passengers into avoidable risk. The captain saying he’s sorry and the helmsman admitting misconduct indicate both will probably face the wrath of South Korea when all is said and done, and full details of what really happened aboard the ferry will likely come out sooner rather than later.
Opinion by Zachary John