The captain of a sunken South Korean ferry was arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, as investigators looked into whether his evacuation order came too late to save lives. Two crew members were also arrested, a prosecutor said.
The disaster three days ago left more than 265 people missing and at least 46 people dead.
As the last bit of the sunken ferry’s hull slipped Friday beneath the murky water off southern South Korea, there was a new victim: a vice principal of the high school whose students were among the passengers was found hanged, an apparent suicide.
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 323 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.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said the ferry captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, faces five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Yang said earlier that Lee was not on the bridge when the ferry 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.
Yang told reporters that the third mate was steering the ship Wednesday morning as it passed through an area with lots of islands clustered close together and fast currents.
Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.
Yang said the third mate has six months of experience, and hadn’t steered in the area before because another mate usually handles those duties. She took the wheel this time because heavy fog caused a departure delay, Yang said, adding that investigators do not know whether the ship was going faster than usual.
Helmsman Park Kyung-nam identified the third mate as Park Han-kyul. The helmsman who was arrested, 55-year-old Cho Joon-ki, spoke to reporters outside court and accepted some responsibility.
“There was a mistake on my part as well, but the steering had been turned much more than usual,” Cho said.
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.