South Korean prosecutors are seeking arrest warrants for Captain Lee Joon-Seok and two crew members of the ferry that capsized with hundreds of children on board.
AFP said a request for the arrest of captain Lee Joon-seok (pictured below going to court) – who was said to be one of the first to jump to safety from the stricken vessel – was submitted to the local court on Friday.
However, the precise charges were still unknown.
“The joint investigation team of police and prosecutors asked for warrants to arrest three crew, including the captain,” the official in the southern coastguard headquarters in Mokpo.
Earlier investigators said Mr Joon-seok may not have been on the bridge at the time of the accident and the vessel was being steered by the third officer, although shipping crew said this was standard practice.
The captain is also said to have delayed evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official ordered preparations to abandon ship, according to a transcript of the ship-to-shore exchange and interviews with a crew member.
The ferry is said to have gone down in calm conditions and was following a frequently travelled route in familiar waters. Although relatively close to shore, the area was free of rocks and reefs.
Some media reports have said the vessel turned sharply, causing cargo to shift and the ship to list before capsizing.
Marine investigators and the coastguard have said it was too early to pinpoint a cause for the accident and declined to comment on the possibility of the cargo shifting.
Local media said rescue ships and cranes were searching in waters off South Korea’s southwestern town of Jindo as the last remaining visible part of sunken ferry disappeared beneath the water.
Teams later installed buoys to mark the sunken passenger ship – however rain, high waves and murky waters were hampering rescue attempts.
Twenty eight passengers are officially listed as dead and 268 are missing, presumed trapped in the stricken vessel, out of 475 passengers and crew.
Earlier, the high school vice-principal rescued from the ferry was found dead in what is believed to be suicide. Local police said the body of Kang Min-Kyu, 52, was found near the gymnasium where relatives of the 268 people still missing were staying.
“The precise cause of death is still under investigation,” a police official told AFP. Yonhap news agency cited police as saying he appeared to have committed suicide.
The vice-principal was among 179 people who managed to escape the ferry in the few hours before it capsized and sank on Wednesday.
Many of the missing are children from a school on the outskirts of Seoul and hopes are fading that any will be found alive.
“We cannot even see the ship’s white colour. Our people are just touching the hull with their hands,” Kim Chun-il, a diver from Undine Marine Industries, told relatives gathered near the site of the rescue effort in the port city of Jindo.
Mr Chun-il said that two divers had to return to the surface when an air pump stopped and said strong tides were impeding the rescue.
Rescuers have pumped air into the vessel, but divers have not yet entered areas of the ship where many of the missing are believed to be.
Above: notes of support hang on the outside of a classroom in Ansan, South Korea
Meanwhile, students at Danwon high school in Ansan left messages of support and tributes for friends outside classrooms. A total of 18 Danwon students were confirmed dead on Friday.
“I am worried about my friends. I have been crying for long time but I cannot do anything else, which makes it even worse. I miss them. I hope they come back soon,” said Kim Na Hyeon, a student of Danwon High School.
Lee Heehun, the principal of the school’s Dean’s Office, said they have mobilized the whole school to comfort the victims’ families.
“We have arranged cars driving to the incident site every hour since seven in the morning so that families of the missing students can all go to the incident site,” said Mr Heehun.
According to Mr Heehun, the school also offers psychological counseling services.
“On behalf of the school we feel really sorry. Currently the important thing is to comfort the families and to find those missing students. We school teachers will try our best too,” said Mr Heehun.