Jindo, South Korea (CNN) — A South Korean captain, standing in handcuffs before reporters, defended his order to delay the evacuation of his sinking ferry, state-run media reported early Saturday.
The news of Lee Joon Seok’s arrest in connection with the sinking that left 29 people dead and more than 270 missing came as divers worked through the night to try to reach the hundreds still believed to be inside the wreckage in the frigid waters 20 kilometers (roughly 12 miles) off the coast of South Korea’s southern peninsula.
Lee has been charged with abandoning his boat, negligence, causing bodily injury, not seeking rescue from other ships, and violating “seamen’s law,” state media reported, citing prosecutors and police
The charges against Lee appear to shed some light on what authorities have focused on in their efforts to find out what happened to the ferry making its way Wednesday from Incheon to the resort island of Jeju.
“Mr. Lee is charged with causing the Sewol ship to sink by failing to slow down while sailing the narrow route and making (a) turn excessively,” prosecutor Lee Bong-chang told the semi-official Yonhap news agency.
“Lee is also charged with failing to do the right thing to guide the passengers to escape and thereby leading to their death or injury.”
If convicted, Lee faces from five years to life in prison.
A South Korean prosecutor said Lee wasn’t at the helm of the Sewol when it started to sink; a third mate was at the helm.
“It is not clear where he was when the accident occurred, although it is clear that he was not in the steering room before the actual accident happened,” state prosecutor Jae-Eok Park said.
A crew member, described as the third mate, appeared with Lee and, like the captain, the thrid mate was in handcuffs. The man was identified only as Park.
It was unclear if he was one of two other crew members who authorities have said also faced arrest in connection with the sinking.
A spokesman for the joint prosecutor and police investigators declined to provide further details.
As the captain left a court hearing early Saturday, police led him to reporters, where he answered questions.
“The tidal current was strong and water temperature was cold, and there was no rescue boat,” Lee told reporters. “So I had everyone stand by and wait for the rescue boat to arrive.”
Lee acknowledged that he plotted the ship’s course, and then went to his cabin briefly “to tend to something.”
It was then, he said, the accident happened.
The third mate, who was at the helm of the ship when Lee left, said he did not make a sharp turn. Rather, he said, “the steering turned much more than usual.”
The captain was one of at least 174 people rescued soon after the Sewol began to sink, violating an “age-old rule and internationally recognized rule that a captain must stay on the vessel,” maritime law attorney Jack Hickey said.
“Pretty much every law, rule, regulation and standard throughout the world says that yes, the captain must stay with the ship until all personnel are safely off of the ship, certainly passengers.”
Hopes of finding the missing alive dimmed further when the entire boat became submerged Friday. Until then, part of the ship’s blue-and-white hull was still poking out of the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea.
The coast guard said workers continued to pump air into the hull of the submerged ship but could not stop its descent.
Still, divers breached the hull of the sunken ferry, and two managed to enter the second deck — the cargo deck, the South Korean coast guard said. But rough waters forced them out. They didn’t find any bodies in their brief search.
Compounding the tragedy of the ship sinking, one of those rescued, a high school vice principal who was on board the ferry along with more than 300 students, was found hanging from a tree, police said.
Kang Min Kyu, 52, vice principal of Ansan Danwon High School, was among the first survivors to be rescued.
Police said he apparently hanged himself with a belt from a tree near a gymnasium in Jindo, where distraught relatives of missing passengers have been camping.
Anger and disgust
Relatives of passengers expressed increasing disgust and anger about the lack of explanation from the captain and the pace of the rescue effort.
Some have waited for days in the cold rain at a harbor in Jindo.
Others camped at a nearby gymnasium and auditorium, desperate to hear any news of their loved ones. Relatives overcome with emotion howled and screamed, but to no avail.
“Hurry up, find it faster!” one woman wailed.
Any hope for survival largely hinges on whether passengers may be in air pockets within the ship, which isn’t unheard of in such cases.
In May 2013, a tugboat capsized off West Africa. Rescuers pulled out a man from 100 feet below the surface who survived 2½ days inside a 4-square-foot air pocket.
That’s one reason family members aren’t ready to give up hope.
Part of the frustration stems from the conflicting information reported by officials.
In the hours after the sinking, some analysts speculated the ferry may have veered off course and struck an object. But the South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said Thursday that it had approved the boat’s intended route, and the actual course did not deviate significantly.
But Kim Soo Hyeon, chief of South Korea’sYellow Sea Maritime Police Agency,later said the ship apparently deviated from its planned route but did not appear to have hit a rock.
‘Ship is tilted’
The Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries released a transcript of the conversation between the ferry and center that monitors vessel traffic.
After alerting the center that the ferry was rolling, the Sewol stated that “the body of the ship is tilted to the left. Containers fell over, too.”
The control center then asked if people were hurt. Impossible to confirm because it was impossible to move, the ferry responded.
The center told the ferry crew to get people ready for evacuation, and the ferry once again described how hard it was for people to move.
Adding to the pain for families, police said texts and social media messages claiming to be from missing passengers turned out to be fake.
Media outlets, including CNN, shared the texts with a wide audience.
“We will investigate people sending out these messages,” said Lee Sung Yoon, head of the combined police and prosecution team.
He said authorities will go after those behind the hoaxes and will “punish them severely.”
CNN’s Paula Hancocks reported from Jindo, Stella Kim reported from Seoul, and Chelsea J Carter reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Holly Yan, Frances Cha, Kyung Lah, Madison Park and Mariano Castillo also contributed to this report.