South Korea Ferry Captain and Crew Face Arrest, Survivor Commits Suicide

South Korea

South Korea prosecutors on Friday asked a court to issue warrants for the arrest of the captain and two members of his crew regarding the capsizing of a ferry with 475 people on board on Wednesday.  The Yonhap News Agency of Seoul has published a photograph that depicts Lee being escorted to court on Friday in order to face the judge.  Since the sinking of the ferry in the waters off of the southern coast of South Korea, 28 have been confirmed dead and 268 remain missing.  Most of the missing are schoolchildren who were traveling to Jeju Island.  One survivor, who was in charge of hundreds of high school students, committed suicide today, stating in his suicide note that he felt guilty.

Reports indicate that the captain, Lee Joon-seok, 69, and other crew members abandoned the ferry before its passengers had been evacuated to safety.  Investigators from South Korea are looking into that claim as well as reports by survivors that they had been ordered to stay in one place when the ferry started to list, and that had a quicker evacuation been ordered by the captain and the crew, the lives of some victims would have been saved.  It is thought that there was a 30-minute delay between the time when the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center ordered the captain to issue an order of evacuation and when the order actually was given.  Some survivors claim that during this 30-minute time period, the captain remained at the helm attempting in vain to right the ship.  Other survivors say that they heard no order to evacuate.

In another tragic turn of events, Kang Min-kyu, 52, the vice principal of Danwon High School which taught 247 students and  employed 11 teachers still missing in the ferry accident, killed himself on Friday afternoon.  He was discovered by police on Friday at 4:10 p.m. hanging from a tree located behind a Jindo, South Korea sports stadium.  Jindo is a port town located near the site where the ferry sank.   Kang had been with the group on the ferry when it sank.  Although he had been rescued safely on one of the initial boats to arrive, it appears that a majority of the others from Danwon High School were not so lucky.  Because divers have not yet been able to enter the submerged hull of the ship, accurate numbers of those killed will not be available until entry is possible.  So far, 11 students and three teachers from Danwon High School are confirmed to have been killed.  Police had been actively seeking Kang because he had been out of contact since Thursday afternoon. A suicide note written by Kang states that he felt extremely guilty for living when over 200 students of whom he was in charge were still unaccounted for.  His final request was to ask that he be cremated and that his ashes could be scattered at the site of the tragedy.

Located in a sleepy suburb approximately one hour away from Seoul, Danwon High School has become a makeshift disaster center.  Relatives and students of the missing gather there to watch television coverage of the disaster while students form groups to support each other, all the while watching their phones for any news.

Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the accident, but reports indicate that they are paying close attention to what the captain and his crew did just before the ferry capsized.  The Associated Press is reporting that South Korea senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin spoke to them and related that at the time of the accident there were two crew members on the ferry’s bridge.  One crew member, a 25-year-old female, and the helmsman, 55, neglected to slow down when they reached an area where many islands are located very close to one another and were ordered by the third mate to make a sharp turn.  According to Yang, the captain was not on the bridge when this occurred, even though law dictates that he should have been.  The third mate was a 26-year-old man with one year’s experience steering ships; five months of that on the ferry.

Among the 29 crew members that manned the ferry that night, including the captain, 20 were rescued safely, leaving prosecutors to believe that the captain abandoned ship before the passengers were safe.  Appearing in a short video, Lee is shrouded in a gray hoodie saying, “I am really sorry and deeply ashamed.  I don’t know what to say.”

Difficulty in reaching the interior of the ferry has been hampered by the low visibility and high currents present in the area where the ship sank.  Military, private and coast guard divers on the scene number in the hundreds.  Hope of rescuing any survivors of the accident were greatly lessened on Friday when the ship sank entirely below the surface.

By Jennifer Pfalz

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