UPDATE 5-Prosecutors extend Korea ferry captain's detention as death toll mounts

Sun Apr 20, 2014 6:34am EDT

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(Updates death toll)

By Ju-min Park and Jungmin Jang

JINDO/MOKPO, South Korea, April 20 (Reuters) - South Korean prosecutors investigating last week's ferry disaster said on Sunday they wanted to extend the detention of the captain and two other crew as they try to determine the cause of an accident that likely claimed more than 300 lives.

The Sewol ferry was on a routine 400-km (300-mile) voyage from Incheon to the southern holiday island of Jeju in calm weather on Wednesday carrying 476 passengers and crew, among them 339 children and teachers on a high school outing.

Divers gained access to the hull of the Sewol for the first time overnight and the number of those confirmed dead rose steadily throughout Sunday by 25 to 58 dead with 244 still listed as missing.

A clearer picture started to emerge of the time around the capsize after coastguards released a recording of a conversation between vessel controllers and the ship.

Witnesses have said the Sewol turned sharply before it began listing. It is still not clear why the vessel turned.

It took more than two hours for it to capsize completely but passengers were ordered to stay put in their cabins.

According to the transcript, at 9.25 a.m. the controllers told the 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 who was in charge for the first time in the passage, according to crew members.

The transcript shows crew on the ship worried there were not enough rescue boats at the scene to take on 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 leapt into the sea, but he has not explained why he left the vessel.

Prosecutor Yang Joong-jin told a news conference in Mokpo, one of the centres 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," Prosecutor Yang Joong-jin told a news conference in Mokpo, one of the centres for the investigation, speaking of the captain and crew.

When the captain and two crew 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.

ANGER AND ANGUISH

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 Ltd.

More divers managed to gain access to the stricken ship on Sunday as guide ropes were installed to help them through the tricky and fast currents in the area, although for many of those waiting in Jindo the recovery was still not quick enough.

Relatives of those listed as missing, but who are now presumed to be dead, clashed briefly with police when about 100 of them tried to leave the island by a road bridge to the mainland to take their protest to the capital city of Seoul.

Police blocked them and they later turned back.

"Bring me the body," weeping mother Bae Sun-ok said of her child as she was comforted by two policemen at the bridge.

Later on Sunday, the Minister for the Oceans and Fisheries Lee Ju-young was jostled and booed by relatives, more than 500 of whom have spent four days and nights cooped up in a gymnasium in the port city of Jindo, which is the centre of the rescue operation.

Tempers have frayed over the slow pace of the recovery and frequent changes in information.

President Park Geun-hye was booed by some of the relatives when she visited the gym on Thursday.

Pupils at the school in Ansan, a gritty commuter town, set up shrines to the dead and posted messages for the missing.

The vice-principal of the school, who was on the ferry and survived the capsize, hanged himself outside the gymnasium in Jindo in another blow to the school. His body was discovered by police on Friday.

The sinking looks set to be the country's worst maritime disaster in 21 years in terms of loss of life. (Additional reporting by Chookyung Kim and Sanggyu Lim; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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