APRIL 21, 2014 — With her administration under fire for its handling of the response to the Sewol Ropax ferry disaster, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the conduct of the captain and some crew members "utterly incomprehensible" and "tantamount to murder."
President Park made the comments in a meeting today with senior secretaries at which, reports Arirang News, she also had tough words for public officials criticized for inadequate rescue operation efforts.
"The cause of the accident will be found out later after the investigation, but we will uncover all irregularities from the incident and make sure those who were responsible are held accountable," said President Park.
"I will throw out all public officials who are working just to keep their posts," she said.
Meantime, though divers have now reached the passenger cabin level of the ship, they are finding only bodies. It seems clear that the only survivors were those who escaped immediately after the ship started to sink sometime around 9 a.m. last Wednesday morning, some 20 kilometers off the coast of Jindo Island in southwestern Korea.
As of this morning, the death toll in the accident had risen to 87, the number of missing stood at 215 and the number rescued remained at 174.
The Chosun Ilbo newspaper is reporting that transcripts show that it took the Korea Coast Guard 12 minutes to answer a distress call from the sinking ferry and that "the two sides then wasted time passing the buck to each other for who should make the decision to evacuate the ferry. It was not the ferry captain who sent a distress call but a first mate."
The Chosun Ilbo reports that the ferry sent the distress call to the emergency services in Jeju instead of the one in Jindo, which was close to the scene, at 8:55 a.m. on Wednesday.
It was not until 9:07 a.m. that the Jindo emergency services communicated with the ferry for the first time.
"Only at 9:24 a.m., half an hour after the ferry started to sink, did the two sides begin talking about evacuating," reports the newspaper. The Sewol asked, "Can passengers be rescued immediately if we order them to abandon ship?" The Coast Guard replied, "The captain should make the final decision. We don't know the situation there."
"Until their final communication at 9:37 a.m., neither side had made a decision to evacuate, although the oil tanker Doola Ace had told them four times that it was on standby to help in nearby waters," reports Chosun Ilbo.
Meantime, passengers were repeatedly told over the public address system to stay in their cabins. Only around at 10:15 a.m. were they told to jump into the water, but by then the first mate and captain had already abandoned ship.
The Sewol's captain, Lee Jun-seok, 69, was arrested on Saturday, along with the youngest of the ship's mates, Park Han-gyeol, 26, and helmsman Jo Jun-gi.
Ms. Park reportedly was navigating this section of the route, said to be its most challenging, for the first time, giving instructions to helmsman on duty, Mr. Jo.
Immediately prior to the incident the ship made a sharp turn and prosecutors have said there were discrepancies betweem Ms. Park's and Mr. Jo's descriptions of events.
Mr. Lee, Ms. Park and Mr. Jo face criminal charges that include accidental homicide. Mr. Lee also faces a charge of abandoning passengers at a time of crisis, which could bring a life sentence.
Investigators are also looking into whether failure to properly secure vehicles and cargo could be implicated in the incident and this morning the ferry's three other mates were detained for questioning, along with the chief engineer.
The ferry was originally delivered in 1994 by Japanese shipbuilder Hayashakina Dockyard as the ferry Naminoue Maru. As built, the vessel had a capacity of 804 passengers, 90 cars and 60 trucks. However, after being acquired by Korea's Cheonghaejin Marine in 2012, alterations included adding extra passenger cabins on the third, fourth and fifth decks, increasing the weight of the ship by 239 tons and changing the ship's capacity to 960 passengers, 88 cars and 60 trucks. There have been questions as to how these alterations may have affected the vessel's stability and investigators have removed documents from the Korean shipyard that carried out the conversion.
Prosecutors and police have also started an investigation of Cheonghaejin Marine and slapped an overseas travel ban on some 40 of its staff and seafarers.