MOKPO, South Korea — The investigation into South Korea’s ferry disaster focused on the sharp turn it took just before it began listing and on the possibility that a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives, officials said Friday, as rescuers struggled to find some 270 people still missing and feared dead.
Police said a high school vice principal who had been rescued from the ferry was found hanging Friday from a pine tree on Jindo, an island near the sunken ship where survivors have been housed. He was the leader of a group of 325 students traveling on the ship on a school excursion, and said in a suicide note that he felt guilty for being alive while more than 200 of his students were missing.
Prosecutors and police also said Friday they have asked a court to issue arrest warrants for the captain and two other crewmembers.
Besides the teacher, at least 28 people are now confirmed dead from the ferry, the Sewol, which sank Wednesday. Officials said there were 174 survivors and about 270 people remain missing, many of them high school students. With the chances of survival becoming slimmer by the hour, it was shaping up to be one of South Korea’s worst disasters, made all the more heartbreaking by the likely loss of so many young people, aged 16 or 17.
The ship had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 476 people aboard. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore at 9 a.m. Soon, only its dark blue keel jutted out over the surface. By late Friday, even that had disappeared, and rescuers floated two giant beige buoys to mark the area. Navy divers attached underwater air bags to the 6,852-ton ferry to prevent it from sinking further, the Defense Ministry said.
Coast guard officials said divers began pumping air into the ship in an attempt to sustain any survivors.
On Jindo’s shore, angry and bewildered relatives watched the rescue attempts. Some held a Buddhist prayer ritual, crying and praying for their relatives’ safe return.
“I want to jump into the water with them,” said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of a missing student, Park Ye-ji. “My loved one is under the water and it’s raining. Anger is not enough.”
The school vice principal found hanging was identified as Kang Min-kyu. In his suicide note, Kang said he wanted to take responsibility for what happened because he had led the trip, according to police. He asked that his body be cremated and the ashes scattered at the accident site.
South Korean officials offered some information about what may have led to the sinking. They said the accident happened at a point where the ferry had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn that was so sharp that it caused the ship to list.
The ship made the sharp turn between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m., but it’s not known whether that was done voluntarily or because of some external factor, said Nam Jae-heon, a spokesman for the Maritime Ministry.
Another angle being probed is the role of the captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok.
Yang Jung-jin, a senior prosecutor, said the captain was not present on the bridge when the ship was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together, something he said is required by law so the captain can help a mate make a turn. The captain also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, he said.
“The captain escaped before the passengers,” Yang said.
Two crewmembers on the bridge of the ferry – a 25-year-old female mate and a 55-year-old helmsman – also failed to reduce speed in the waters near the islands and conducted a sharp turn, Yang said. They also did not carry out necessary measures to save lives, he said.
A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange and interviews by The Associated Press showed the captain delayed the evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official told the ship it might have to evacuate.
The recommendation by the unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center came at 9 a.m., just five minutes after a distress call by the Sewol. In the exchange, the Sewol crewmember says: “Currently the body of the ship has listed to the left. The containers have listed as well.”
The Jeju VTS officer responds: “OK. Any loss of human life or injuries?” The ship’s answer is: “It’s impossible to check right now. The body of the ship has tilted, and it’s impossible to move.”
The VTS officer then says: “Yes, OK. Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship.”
“It’s hard for people to move,” replies the crew member on the radio.
Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry, told the AP that the first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were as the crew tried to control the ship.
About 30 minutes later, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn’t sure if, in the confusion and chaos on the bridge, the order was relayed to the passengers. Several survivors told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.
Lee, the captain, made a brief, videotaped appearance with his face hidden by a gray hoodie. “I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” Lee said. “I don’t know what to say.”
On Friday, strong currents and rain made rescue attempts difficult. Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the sunken vessel, where most of the missing passengers are thought to be trapped, coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said.
Three vessels with cranes arrived at the site to prepare to salvage the ferry. But they will not hoist the ship before getting approval from family members of those believed trapped inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.
Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, in Incheon, the operator of the ferry, added more cabin rooms to three floors after its 2012 purchase of the ship, which was built in Japan in 1994, an official at the private Korean Register of Shipping told the AP.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter was still under investigation, said the extension work between October 2012 and February 2013 increased the Sewol’s weight by 187 tons and added enough room for 117 more people. The Sewol had a capacity of 921 when it sank.
As is common in South Korea, the ship’s owner paid for a safety check by the Korean Register of Shipping, which found that the Sewol passed all safety tests, including whether it could stabilize in the event of tilting, the official said.
Prosecutors raided and seized materials and documents from the ship’s operator, as well as six companies that had conducted safety checks, revamped the ship, or loaded container boxes, a sign that investigators will likely examine the ship’s addition of rooms and how containers were loaded.
The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.