ANSAN, South Korea — The captain and two crew members of a ferry that capsized off the southern coast of South Korea were detained Saturday on suspicion of negligence in the accident that left at least 28 people confirmed dead and 274 missing, officials said.
Investigators are looking into whether Capt. Lee Joon-seok, 69, and other personnel issued improper orders and abandoned passengers as the ship rolled. They also are trying to determine whether a quicker evacuation might have saved lives. Survivors have said that they were told not to move when the ferry started listing.
“Lee is under suspicion of making a sharp turn while sailing the ship through a narrow route and eventually sinking the Sewol,” Lee Bong-chang, a senior prosecutor of Gwangju District Prosecutors' Office, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
“Charges against Lee include not making efforts to safely evacuate passengers and eventually causing their death,” the prosecutor said.
As hope faded that any of the missing would be found alive, the vice principal of a high school that counts 247 students and 11 teachers among the missing committed suicide Friday afternoon, authorities said. So far, 11 Danwon students and three teachers are among the confirmed dead.
Kang Min-kyu, 52, had been traveling with the Danwon High School students and staff to Jeju island when the ship capsized. He was rescued on one of the first boats; most of the others from the school were not so fortunate.
Officials revised their tallies Friday, saying the ferry carried 476 passengers, 174 of whom were rescued, according to Yonhap News Agency. As of Friday night, the agency said, 28 were confirmed dead, leaving 274 missing.
Hundreds of divers from the military, coast guard and private firms continued trying to reach the inside of the ship Friday, but little progress was reported. The Sewol ferry is submerged in an area of high currents and low visibility, hampering efforts to access the hull.
Around noon Friday, the last exposed section of the hull slipped beneath the waves, further diminishing chances that survivors will be found.
Kang was found by police at 4:10 p.m. Friday, hanged from a pine tree behind a sports stadium in Jindo, a southern port town near the site of the sinking. Police had reportedly been searching for him; he had been out of contact since Thursday.
Upon hearing the news that Kang had taken his own life, one middle-aged woman who was awaiting news with other relatives of the missing shouted that his suicide was a dishonorable act that betrayed survivors.
The school, in a quiet suburb about an hour’s drive south of Seoul, has been turned into a de facto disaster response center. Bereaved relatives and students crowded the entrance, while in the fourth-floor auditorium, TV coverage of the disaster was being projected on a large screen. Students, many in their uniforms, sat in groups, quietly chatting, consoling one another and checking their smartphones.
Throughout the hallways, the doors of classrooms with missing students and teachers were covered with handwritten notes bearing such messages as “We miss you” and “We wish for your safe return.”
The cause of the sinking has not been determined. Investigators are reportedly focusing on the actions of the captain and crew in the moments before it capsized.
Yang Jung-jin, a senior prosecutor, told the Associated Press that two crew members on the bridge of the ferry — a 25-year-old female mate and a 55-year-old helmsman — failed to reduce speed and executed a sharp turn in an area with many islands clustered closely together. The captain was not present on the bridge at the time, Yang told the news service.
Borowiec is a special correspondent.