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Focus on human error as toll rises in South Korea ferry tragedy

The captain and the two other officers of the ship were arrested

South Korean authorities have arrested the captain of the Sewol, the ferry that sank two days ago, leaving hundreds missing and feared dead.

Rescuers planned 40 dives Saturday in an attempt to enter the ferry and retrieve at least some of the more than 270 people missing. A civilian diver saw three bodies inside the ship through windows but was unable to break the windows, said Kwon Yong-deok, a coast guard official. So far 29 bodies have been recovered since the Wednesday disaster.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, "was not in command when the accident took place," officials said. The third officer was in charge, state prosecutor Park Jae-Eok told the press earlier.

Prosecutors said Lee was arrested early Saturday along with the third mate, a 25-year-old woman identified only by her surname, Park, and helmsman Cho Joon-ki, 55. Lee faces five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, and the crew members each face three related charges, according to the Yonhap news agency.

A crew member said that the captain's evacuation order came at least half an hour after the ship sent a distress signal at 9 a.m.

Investigators said they were looking into whether a crew member's order to abruptly turn the ship contributed to the 6,852-ton Sewol's tilting severely to the side and capsizing.

According to the transcript of a ship-to-shore exchange, five minutes after a distress call by the Sewol, a crew member said, "It's hard for people to move."

Rescuers are scrambling to find hundreds of ferry passengers still missing and feared dead, as South Korean investigators focus on the role of human error in the tragedy. Workers have recovered at least 28 bodies so far.

The number of confirmed deaths was expected to rise sharply, with about 270 people missing, many of them students from Danwon High School on a class trip to Jeju Island. Officials said there were 179 survivors.

South Korean police said Friday that the high school's vice principal, identified only by the surname Kang, had hanged himself on the nearby island of Jindo, where rescued passengers had been taken to shelter.

Divers working in shifts

Also on Friday, strong currents and rain once again made rescue attempts difficult as the search for survivors entered a third day. Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the sunken vessel, where most of the missing passengers are thought to be trapped, said coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in.

"We cannot even see the ship's white color. Our people are just touching the hull with their hands," Kim Chun-il, a diver from Undine Marine Industries, told relatives gathered in the port city of Jindo, near the site of the rescue effort.

Coast guard officials said divers began pumping air into the ship Friday in an attempt to sustain any survivors, but divers have yet to enter areas of the ferry where many of the missing may be.

How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?

Ham Young-ho

grandfather of Lee Da-woon, 17, one of the dead

South Korean officials said the accident occurred at a point where the ferry from Incheon to Jeju had to make a turn. Park said that investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered such a sharp turn that it caused the ship to list.

The ship made a sharp turn at 8:48 a.m. or 8:49 a.m., but it's not known whether the turn was made voluntarily or because of some external factor, Nam Jae-heon, a director for public relations at the Maritime Ministry, said Friday.

Park said the testimony of crew members differed about where the captain was when the ship started listing. As the listing continued, the captain was "near" the bridge, Park said, but he couldn't say exactly where.

Coast guard officials have said the investigation was focused on possible crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and structural defects of the vessel, although the ship appears to have passed all its safety and insurance checks.

Parents of the missing schoolchildren blamed the captain for the tragedy after he and shipping company officials made emotional apologies for the loss of life. Neither Lee nor the company that owns the ship, the Chonghaejin Marine Co., has admitted responsibility for the disaster.

Witnesses have said that the captain and some of the crew left the vessel while others instructed passengers to remain in place as it began to sink. Kim Soo-hyun, a senior coast guard official, said officials were investigating whether the captain got on one of the first rescue boats — a possibility infuriating to relatives of the missing and dead passengers.

"How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?" said Ham Young-ho, a grandfather of 17-year-old Lee Da-woon, one of the dead.

Prosecutors raid shipowners

Prosecutors on Friday raided Chonghaejin Marine's offices in Incheon.

The operator of the ferry added more cabins to three floors after its 2012 purchase the ship, which was built in Japan in 1994, an official at the private Korean Register of Shipping told The Associated Press on Friday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not allowed to discuss matters under investigation, said the extension work, from October 2012 to February 2013, increased the Sewol's weight by 187 tons and added enough room for 117 more people. The Sewol had a capacity of 921 when it sank.

As is common for ship owners in South Korea, Chonghaejin Marine paid for a safety check by the Korean Register of Shipping, the official said, which found that the Sewol passed all safety tests, including whether the ship could stabilize in the event of listing after adding more weight.

Wire services

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