South Korean prosecutors say 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.
The disclosure came late Saturday, nearly 90 hours after the 6,800-ton ferry Sewol went down off the southwestern island of Jindo with 476 people on board. By early Sunday, 36 people were confirmed dead, with 266 others still missing as hope diminishes for finding more survivors. One hundred seventy-four others have been rescued, but none since Wednesday.
Authorities also confirmed Saturday that the ship's captain was in his quarters at the time of the sinking, leaving the inexperienced third mate at the helm.
The captain, the third mate and one other crew member were arrested Saturday on charges of deserting their passengers as the ferry was sinking.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency says the captain is also suspected of instructing passengers to remain seated, even as the ferry began rolling onto its side and blocking escape routes.
Meanwhile, hundreds of divers, many of them civilian volunteers, battled strong undercurrents to enter the submerged ferry Saturday. Authorities said divers had recovered three bodies from the vessel by late evening, as flares illuminated the night skies and divers fought to gain access to the vessel.
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.
Heavy fog was reported in the area on Tuesday evening, but it is not known whether that was a contributing factor.
A Yonhap report Friday said the inexperienced third mate may have made a sharp turn while piloting the ship at speeds too high for conditions. Investigators were quoted as saying the sudden turn may have caused 180 vehicles and nearly 1,200 tons of freight to shift and causing the vessel to list.