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April 19, 2014

Captain of Sunken South Korean Ferry Arrested by Police

by Daniel Schearf

South Korean police have formally arrested the captain and two crew members of a doomed ferry, on charges of deserting their passengers shortly after the vessel capsized Wednesday and sank.

Investigators allege the 69-year-old captain failed to carry out his duty to protect passengers when, according to witnesses, he was one of the first to leave the sinking ship.  A report by South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the captain also is suspected of instructing passengers to remain seated, even as the ferry began rolling onto its side and blocking escape routes.

The ferry Sewol went down off the southwestern island of Jindo with 476 people on board.

Thirty-six people are confirmed dead, and 266 others - many of them high school students - remain unaccounted for as hope diminishes for finding more survivors. One hundred seventy-four others have been rescued, but none since Wednesday.

According to South Korean prosecutors, the 26-year-old third mate left to steer a doomed ferry through a treacherous waterway was navigating the area for the first time when the vessel listed on its side and sank with hundreds on board.

Yonhap reported that a team of 21 divers tried to enter a cabin on the submerged second deck of the five-deck ferry, where most of the passengers are believed to be trapped 35 meters below the surface.  But the report said the divers, battling strong underwater currents, surfaced 14 minutes later without having gained entry.

More than 500 divers are working on the rescue teams.  Many of them are civilian volunteers. Experts say people theoretically could survive for up to 72 hours if there are air pockets in the submerged compartments.

Authorities have not established the cause of the disaster. But some survivors report hearing a loud impact noise before the vessel rolled onto its side and began sinking.

The Yonhap report said the third officer is suspected of making a sharp turn while piloting the ship through a narrow route.  Investigators are quoted as saying the sudden turn may have caused 180 vehicles and nearly 1,200 tons of freight to shift and disrupt the balance of the vessel before it began to list.

Heavy fog was reported in the area on Tuesday evening, but it is not known whether that was a contributing factor.

President Barack Obama has sent his condolences to the families and says he will pay tribute to them during a visit to South Korea next week.

Meanwhile, hopes for survivors is fading. Anxiety and anger are growing among relatives of the missing, most of them high school students. Workers at Paengmok Harbor tried to console a parent of one of the missing high school children believed trapped inside the capsized ferry.
 
Despite earlier reports of success, rescue divers failed on their third day of attempting to get to passengers inside the ship, just 20 kilometers off shore. Oxygen was pumped into the ship in hopes it would reach any survivors. Divers later tried entering a cargo hold but were not able to go further, in a struggle against wreckage, strong currents and murky water.
  ​​Hundreds of volunteers and emergency workers at the harbor tried to comfort distraught relatives angry at the lack of progress and misinformation.
 
Parents of the missing demanded a road be cleared for any who might be rescued. Authorities quickly obliged, marching in a column of police.
 
Lee Min-seok, a rescue team captain with the Mokpo Firefighters, explained that the police presence is to keep crowds away so roads are clear enough for ambulances to pass through.
 
Several ambulances were readied nearby with flashing lights, but the display was cold comfort.
 
Vice principal commits suicide

Police say a high school vice principal rescued from the ferry has committed suicide.

Kang Min-kyu, 52, had been the leader of a group of at least 325 students traveling on the ferry on a school trip. Police say he was found Friday hanging by his belt from a tree near a gym on the island of Jindo where survivors and relatives of those missing have been staying. He is said to have left a suicide note saying he felt guilty for being alive.

Authorities have prepared cranes to try to lift the ferry, but relatives demanded they wait until there is certainty that none are alive. Government, volunteer, and donor tents and food trucks are wrapped around the harbor.
 
Seo Joon-baek, a Salvation Army officer, said they are preparing food for about 500 people every day.

VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.
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