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South Korean president: Ferry captain’s actions ‘like an act of murder’

President labels crew’s desertion of ship ‘unfathomable,’ and four more are arrested

The conduct of the captain and crew of a South Korean ferry that capsized last week with hundreds of children on board "was like an act of murder," President Park Geun-hye said Monday, and four more crew members have been arrested.

Sixty-four people are known to have died, and 238 are missing, presumed dead, in the sinking of the Sewol ferry last Wednesday. Most of the victims were high school children.

Capt. Lee Joon-seok, 69, and two other crew members were arrested last week on negligence charges, with prosecutors announcing four further arrests — two first mates, one second mate and the chief engineer — on Monday.

Lee was also charged with undertaking an "excessive change of course without slowing down" while traversing a narrow channel.

Several crew members, including the captain, left the ferry ahead of the passengers as it was sinking, witnesses have said.

Park said the crew's desertion was tantamount to murder.

"Above all, the conduct of the captain and some crew members is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense, and it was like an act of murder that cannot and should not be tolerated," she told aides.

Lee said in a promotional video four years ago that the journey from the port city of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju was safe — as long as passengers followed the instructions of the crew.

He told a newspaper in 2004 that he was involved in a sea accident off Japan years before.

The tragic irony of the video is that the crew ordered the passengers to stay put in their cabins as the ferry sank. Many of those who escaped, however, either did not hear or ignored that instruction and were rescued as they abandoned ship.

Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers on a high school outing.

"Passengers who take our ship to and from Incheon and Jeju can enjoy a safe and pleasant trip, and I believe it is safer than any other vehicle as long as they follow the instructions of our crew members," Lee said in the 2010 promotional video, according to transcripts broadcast by regional cable station OBS. He was not referring to the Sewol, which came into service on that route in 2013.

The Jeju Today newspaper interviewed Lee in 2004, and  he spoke of close shaves at sea, including passing through a typhoon and a sinking off Japan.

"The first ship I took was a log carrier vessel, and it capsized near Okinawa. A helicopter from Japan's Self-Defense Force came and rescued me. Had it not been for their help, I wouldn't be here now."

The newspaper did not give further details.

‘I know how he said ‘Dad’’

Parents of the missing children in one of South Korea's worst maritime disasters sat exhausted from days of grief Monday, waiting for the almost inevitable news that their loved ones had died.

Many have spent all their time since the accident in a gymnasium in the port city of Jindo, taking turns in venting their anger at the crew's inaction and the slow pace of the rescue and recovery operation.

One of those waiting in the gymnasium was Kim Chang-gu, whose son Kim Dong-hyup is among the missing.

"I dream about him and hear hallucinatory sounds," he told Reuters. "Somebody told me he was alive, but I now have given up. I know how he said 'Dad.' I keep hearing that."

Divers are retrieving the bodies at a faster pace, and some parents have moved from the gymnasium to the pier to await news.

Others stay put on their mattresses in the gym, where one by one, parents are informed that a body matches a family DNA swab, prompting wailing and collapses.

Two U.S. underwater drones have been deployed in the search for bodies, a coast guard official said. Strong tides hampered operations overnight, but the weather was better on Monday.

A clearer picture has started to emerge of the time around the accident after the coast guard released a recording of a conversation between vessel controllers and the ship.

Witnesses have said the Sewol turned sharply before it began listing. It took more than two hours for it to capsize, but passengers were ordered to remain in their cabins.

According to the transcript, the controllers told the captain 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 who was in charge for the first time on that part of the journey, according to crew members.

The transcript shows crew members worried there were not enough rescue boats to take all the passengers. Witnesses said the captain and some crew members took to rescue boats before the passengers.

Lee said earlier he feared that passengers would be swept away by the ferocious currents if they leaped into the sea. He has not explained why he left the vessel.

Pupils at the children's school, in Ansan, a gritty commuter town on the outskirts of Seoul, set up shrines to the dead and posted messages for the missing.

The vice principal of the school, who survived the accident, hanged himself outside the gymnasium in Jindo. His body was discovered by police on Friday.


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