| JINDO, South Korea, April 17
JINDO, South Korea, April 17 The captain of the
South Korean ferry that capsized off the southwest coast was
facing a criminal investigation on Thursday, an official said,
amid unconfirmed reports that he was one of the first people to
jump to safety as the vessel began sinking.
The Sewol ferry was carrying 475 passengers and crew when it
capsized on Wednesday. The government has said nine people were
found dead and 179 had been rescued, leaving about 290 people,
most of them teenaged school children, missing and possibly
trapped in the vessel.
The captain, identified as Lee Joon-seok, 69, is being
questioned by the coastguard and is the subject of a criminal
investigation, a coastguard official said.
Media reports said he was facing the possibility of charges
of negligence leading to death and also for violating a law that
stipulates the conduct of shipping crew. Coastguard officials
could not be reached for further details.
"It's still an early stage and we're questioning the
circumstances," said one coastguard official in the town of
Mokpo, which is the centre of the investigation.
Television showed the captain sitting hunched over, wearing
a hooded jacket, at the coastguard centre in Mokpo on Thursday.
"I apologise to the passengers and victims and families," he
said, declining to answer questions about what happened and why
he abandoned the ship when he did.
Coastguard investigators have not given reporters access to
the captain since then.
Lee was filling in for the regular captain, who was on
leave, but had been at sea for 40 years and had travelled on the
route before, ferry operator Chonghaejin said.
No survivor has been able to specify exactly when the
captain left the vessel although several said he left early. At
the time, other witnesses said, the crew was asking passengers
to remain calm and stay where they were.
"MAD AS HELL"
One survivor told a South Korean television station: "I was
one of the first ones to jump on a coastguard boat and there
were several others, and I heard from one of the rescuers that
the captain was on the boat before me."
Other survivors also said the captain was one of the first
to be rescued. Coastguard officials declined to comment when
asked for confirmation.
The ferry operator declined to comment on the captain's
action, saying it was under investigation by the coastguard.
Families of the missing were outraged at the reports of the
captain being one of the first to jump ship.
"It's despicable and I'm mad as hell, but this is really not
the time to talk blame, it's the rescue of these kids that comes
first," said Lee Yong-ki, father of one of the missing children.
About half of the 30 crew members have been rescued.
It took the ferry about two hours to sink and most of the
survivors were those who made it out on to the deck and then
waited for help, holding on to the rails, or jumped into the sea
to be picked up by rescue boats.
The crew was appealing to the passengers to remain where
they were when it started sinking.
"It is outrageous that they didn't tell people to get out,"
said Choi Min-ji, one of the high school students who survived.
"They kept saying 'stay put' even when the water was coming
in. I almost got trapped too and barely came out alive. If they
did it (told people to get out) there would have been fewer
Another survivor, Lee Tae-ju, 68, said some people believed
the order to stay put sounded reasonable at the time.
"The ship was listing sharply, so I would have tried to tell
people to stay put if I were them, just to keep calm. What can
you do? In any case, the ship was listing so sharply it would
have been almost impossible to get out."
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Ju-Min Park in Seoul and
Jungmin Jang in Mokpo; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing
by Robert Birsel)