19 Apr 2014

South Korean ferry disaster: captain ‘bows head’ in apology

The captain of the South Korean ferry that capsized apologises to the families of those who died, admitting that he was at fault.

Lee Joon-seok, 69, said: “I understand there are some things that are my fault. I am sorry I caused the trouble. I apologise to all Koreans and especially I bow my head in apology to the family of the victims.”

In his first public explanation of his actions as the ship began to sink, he added: “The boat was in an area of very strong current, the temperature of the ocean water was cold and I thought if people left the ferry without proper judgement, if they not were wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties.

“The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats around at that time.”

His apology followed the news that the confirmed death toll has now reached 32. More than 270 are still missing, but little hope reportedly remains of finding any of them alive. And, earlier in the day, it was reported that text messages apparently sent from survivors inside the sunken South Korean ferry have been exposed as fakes.

According to police, the messages – which gave a glimmer of hope to relatives – could not be genuine because analysis showed that none of the phones belonging to the 271 people who are still missing have been used since the Sewol sank on Wednesday.

The Korea Herald reported that investigators found that one of the messages, which purportedly came from a survivor still trapped in the sunken vessel, was actually sent by a schoolchild from near Incheon, in the north of South Korea.

The paper reported one officer as saying: “We’ve checked over 300 phones, since some people owned more than one phone.” None, however, was found to have been used to send messages from inside the ship.

I know the rescue is underway but make your way out if you can Father of missing teenager

One of the messages sent in the hours after the sinking was initially believed to have come from an 18-year-old girl still on the ship. According to the New York Post, the girl, named Shin, texted her father to say: “Dad, don’t worry. I’ve got a life vest on and we’re huddled together.”

Her father replied: “I know the rescue is underway but make your way out if you can.” He then received the response: “Dad, I can’t walk out… The corridor is full of kids and it’s too tilted.

Video: families of the missing watch live footage of the operation to find their relatives

Third mate at helm for first time

Families of the people onboard gave DNA swabs on Saturday to help identify the dead as hopes faded of finding any of the 272 still missing. Besides the 69-year-old captain, two other crew members have now been arrested; including the third mate, who was steering the vessel when it capsized. Lee and the two other were arrested on charges of criminal negligence over the disaster.

Prosecutors later said the mate was steering the Sewol through the waters where it listed and capsized – for the first time in her career, Reuters reported.

The ship’s captain was described by officials from Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, the owner of the vessel, as a “veteran”. As he was led away by police, he told South Korean television: “I had ordered (passengers) to leave the ferry, but (later) I said to them to stay because there was no rescue ship.”

Police also raided Chonghaejin offices in Incheon and Yang Joong-jin, a prosecutor in the city of Mokpo, said ten people were being questioned over the loading and stowing of the Sewol’s cargo.

Early reports said that the ferry turned sharply and listed, perhaps due to a shift in the cargo it was carrying and crew members said the captain, who was not initially on the bridge, had tried to right the ship but failed.

Some 500 relatives of the 272 people missing watched a murky underwater video shot after divers reported they had seen three bodies through the windows. The video, viewed by relatives and journalists, did not appear to show any corpses.

The family members have been huddled in a gymnasium in the port city Jindo since the ship went down. Tempers flared and fist fights broke out after the video was shown. Reuters reported that a woman who identified herself as the mother of a child called Kang Hyuck used a microphone to plead for the ship to be lifted “so we can get the bodies out”.

The official number of those missing was revised up from an earlier estimate of 269.