Jindo, South Korea: The captain and two crew members of a ferry that capsized leaving more than 270 people missing, have been arrested, the authorities said.
Captain Lee Jun-seok, 69, was charged with abandoning the boat and its passengers at a time of crisis, among other counts, according to prosecutors. Mr Lee as well as the 26-year-old third mate, who the authorities said was steering the ship at the time of accident, and another crewman were taken to jail with their hands cuffed after a judge approved their arrest warrants after a hearing on Saturday.
On Friday, investigators said Mr Lee who has been criticised for being among the first to leave the sinking ship, was not at the steering house when the ferry, the Sewol, tilted and began sinking on Wednesday morning.
Waiting on the waves: A family member of missing passengers pays vigil on shore. Photo: Reuters
"He temporarily left the steering command to his third shipmate," said Park Jae-uk, a senior investigator. "We are investigating where exactly he was at the time."
The captain returned to the bridge as soon as the ship began tilting, Mr Park said. The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the third mate had a year of experience steering ships, five months of it on the Sewol.
The move by prosecutors to arrest him came after more potential clues emerged as to how the ferry's trip to the resort island of Jeju, which began on Tuesday night, turned into one of South Korea's worst disasters in decades. Twenty-nine deaths have so far been confirmed.
Danwon High School students hold papers with messages such as "miss you", "love you" and "don't lose your hope" for their friends who are missing. Photo: AP
Officials confirmed on Friday that they were investigating whether the ship, under the third mate's command, made too sharp a turn on a curve in the sea route. They have raised the possibility that the vehicles and other heavy cargo on the ferry might not have been properly secured, in which case they could have slid to one side when the turn was made, causing the ship to tilt.
Prosecutors raided the offices of the ship's operator, Cheonghaejin Marine Co, and a shipyard to investigate allegations that Cheonghaejin added more cabin rooms, probably making the ship top-heavy, to accommodate more passengers after buying the 20-year-old ferry secondhand from Japan in 2012. Although the Sewol passed balancing and other safety tests, officials were looking into whether the structural change contributed to the accident.
They were also investigating widespread accounts that the crew had urged passengers to stay in their quarters even as the ship was sinking, instructions that may have resulted in many people being trapped.
Angry reception ... South Korean President Park Geun-hye speaks to family members of missing passengers who were on South Korean ferry. Photo: Reuters
After two days of futile efforts, South Korean divers on Friday managed to enter the capsized ferry where many of the 273 missing people were feared to have been trapped when the ship sank. But officials warned that the work would be painstaking and difficult.
"The visibility is down to seven inches," said Kim Suho, 42, the chief of one civilian dive team. "But that is not the problem. The problem is the currents are swirling inside the ship so that it is impossible to open any doors. And there is a vortex of turbulence under the ship at a depth of 110 feet which sucks divers down."
The civilian and navy divers have succeeded in securing guide ropes around the ship to help them manoeuvre in the darkness and silt within.
The ferry Sewol listed and sank off the island of Jindo on the southern coast of South Korea.
Rescuers were also using high-pressure hoses to pump oxygen into the ship, which by Friday was completely underwater. The rescuers were hoping that the oxygen would reach people who might yet be alive in air pockets within the submerged vessel.
Four cranes arrived on the scene on Friday as officials prepared for the eventual salvaging of the vessel. But experts said it would take days, if not weeks, to complete the difficult task of raising the ship.
New York Times, Telegraph, London