64 dead, 238 missing in S. Korean ferry sinking accident

Updated: 2014-04-21 08:20


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The Sewol's captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested Saturday, along with one of the ship's three helmsmen and the 25-year-old third mate, on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. The third mate was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time. The cause of the sinking is not known, but prosecutors said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said the third mate has refused to tell investigators why she made the sharp turn. He said that she had a "psychological shock" and fainted under questioning, but that she told investigators she did not need medical attention.

Prosecutors have not identified the third mate, but a fellow crew member identified her as Park Han-kyul.

Yang said 30 to 40 people have been barred from leaving South Korea while authorities investigate the sinking.

The captain, as he was taken from court in Mokpo on Saturday, had explained his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation.

"At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties," Lee told reporters. "The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time."

The Sewol made its first distress call at 8:55 a.m. Wednesday to a different vessel traffic services center on Jeju island; the government released that transcript Friday. "It's impossible to move," the ship told the Jeju VTS at 9 a.m., a message it repeated to the Jindo office.

"I can't move even one foot from where I am. I'm holding the wall, barely standing," the crew member who spoke to the Jindo VTS official said at 9:18 am.

By then, a civilian ship was in the area; it told Jindo VTS at 9:14 a.m. that it was ready to help passengers, according to the transcript released Sunday. It is not clear from the transcript whether the Sewol, when it asked about rescue prospects 10 minutes later, realized the civilian ship was nearby.

As the Sewol continued to tilt, the crew member continued to raise questions about the details of an evacuation and rescue. After being told at 9:27 that a helicopter was one minute away, the crew member said, "There are too many passengers. A helicopter is not enough."

At 9:29, the crew member said, "I can see other ships," then asked the Jindo VTS official to tell one of the ships to move from the Sewol's front to its left.

It was not until 9:37 that it was clear to VTS that the ferry had given an order to evacuate: "People are trying to evacuate on their left side. I did broadcast, but it's impossible to move to the left," the crew member said. The ferry's last communication with the official came seconds later.

Associated Press writers Foster Klug, Youkyung Lee, Jung-yoon Choi and Leon Drouin-Keith in Seoul, South Korea, and Minjeong Hong in Jindo contributed to this report.


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