ANSAN, South Korea – Prosecutors asked a court Friday to issue arrest warrants for the captain and two crew members of a ferry that capsized off the southern coast of South Korea, leaving 28 people confirmed dead and 268 missing, most of them schoolchildren.
Investigators are looking into charges that Capt. Lee Joon-seok, 69, and other personnel abandoned ship Wednesday before the passengers had been safely evacuated. They are also 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 was taken into custody, according to news reports. A photograph published by Seoul's Yonhap News Agency showed him being brought to court in Mokpo on Friday, but it was not immediately clear whether he had been formally arrested.
As hope faded that any of the missing would be found alive, the vice principal of a high school that has 247 students and 11 teachers unaccounted for committed suicide Friday afternoon, authorities said.
Kang Min-kyu, 52, had been traveling with the group of Danwon High School students and staff to Jeju island when the ship sank with 475 people aboard. He was rescued on one of the first boats, but most of the others from the school were not so fortunate.
So far, 11 Danwon students and three teachers are among the confirmed dead, but the toll is expected to rise sharply once divers can access the hull of the vessel, which remains submerged.
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 entire ship sank for the first time, 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, as 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 gathered with other relatives of the missing at the school, waiting for news, shouted that his suicide was a dishonorable act and a betrayal to survivors.
The school, in a quiet suburb about an hour south of Seoul, has been turned into a de facto disaster response center. The entrance was crowded with bereaved relatives and students. In the fourth-floor auditorium, TV coverage of the disaster was being broadcast via projector. Groups of 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 are covered in handwritten notes, with messages such as "We miss you" and "We wish for your safe return."
The cause of the sinking has not been determined, but 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 in an area with many islands clustered closely together and conducted a sharp turn. The captain was not present on the bridge at the time, Yang was quoted as saying.
Borowiec is a special correspondent.