South Korean prosecutors investigating last week’s ferry disaster yesterday said they want to extend the detention of the vessel’s captain and two crew members as they try to determine the cause of the accident that has likely claimed more than 300 lives.
The Sewol ferry was on a routine 400km voyage from Incheon to the southern holiday island of Jeju in calm weather on Wednesday last week carrying 476 passengers and crew, 339 of which were children and teachers on a high-school outing.
Divers gained access to the Sewol’s hull for the first time overnight and the number of those confirmed dead rose steadily throughout yesterday by 25 to 58, with 244 still missing.
A clearer picture of what happened at the time of the capsize started to emerge after South Korean coast guards released a recording of a conversation between vessel controllers and the ship.
Witnesses have said the Sewol turned sharply before it began listing, but it is still not clear why the vessel turned. Although it took more than two hours for the ferry to capsize completely, passengers were ordered to stay put in their cabins.
According to the transcript, at 9:25am the controllers told 69-year-old captain Lee Joon-seok to “decide how best to evacuate the passengers” and that he should “make the final decision on whether or not to evacuate.”
Lee was not on the bridge when the ship turned, navigation was in the hands of a 26-year-old third mate put in charge for the first time in the passage, crew members said.
The transcript shows that crew members were worried there were not enough rescue boats to take all the passengers and witnesses have said that the captain and some crew members took to the boats before the passengers.
Lee earlier said he feared that passengers would be swept away by the ferocious currents if they jumped into the sea, but has not explained why he left the vessel.
Prosecutor Yang Joong-jin told a news conference in Mokpo, one of the centers for the investigation, that some of the crew said they had not received any safety training.
“We are trying to find out if there is additional negligence,” Yang said.
When the captain and two crewmen were arrested on Saturday, they were detained by police for 10 days and prosecutors for a further 10. If the new extension request is granted, they could be detained for 30 days.
Yang said that prosecutors had also summoned 10 other people to give evidence, including other crew from the Sewol and officials from the ferry’s owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co.
More divers managed to gain access to the stricken ship yesterday as guide ropes were installed to help them through tricky currents, although for many of those waiting for news of their missing loved ones in Jindo — the center of the rescue operation — the recovery was still not quick enough.
Relatives of those listed as missing, but presumed dead, clashed briefly with police when about 100 of them tried to leave the island to take their protest to the capital, Seoul.
“Bring me the body,” Bae Sun-ok said of her child as she was comforted by two policemen at the bridge.