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South Korean Ferry Captain Among First to Abandon Ship

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South Korea Seeks Arrest Warrant for Sunken Ferry's Captain

Arrest warrants were issued for the captain and two crew members of the sunken South Korean ferry on Friday, as a crew member confirmed accounts that the captain was among the first to abandon the sinking ship.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, crew member Oh Yong-seok, who isn't a target of an arrest warrant, re-created the chaotic final moments before the ship capsized on Wednesday morning.


He said that while members of the crew did abandon the boat, they did everything they could to first evacuate the vessel's passengers.

The focus on the crew members' final actions came during a third day of frustration, confusion and tragedy that offered no new breakthroughs in attempts to rescue the nearly 300 passengers who remain missing.

Investigators also didn't appear to be any closer to understanding why the ship made what it called a "radical right turn" shortly before it began to sink.

On Friday afternoon, one of those rescued from the ferry committed suicide, according to local police. The vice principal of the high school where the 325 students on board the ship attended school was found hanged near the gymnasium on Jindo island where family members of the victims have gathered.

The developments occurred amid further setbacks in attempts to lift the ferry from the sea. Four large cranes sent to the site of the shipwreck had arrived as of early Friday evening, the coast guard said, raising expectations that work would begin to raise the ship.

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But the cranes hadn't yet begun the work, and the coast guard said a fifth crane would arrive on Sunday to join in the efforts. Plans to send divers into the ship briefly succeeded Friday afternoon after a string of failures, coast guard officials said, adding that the divers didn't find any signs of life inside.

By that time, the ferry boat, the "Sewol," sank completely below the water's surface by midday Friday, dragging down with it any immediate hopes of finding survivors.

The coast guard said 268 passengers remain missing, though the death count has ticked higher, to 28, as bodies have been found. No one has been rescued since 179 people were rescued on Wednesday, the day that the ship sank.

In a hospital in Ansan, home to the 325 high school students aboard the boat, memorial services continued for some of the confirmed victims.

In an interview with the Journal outside his hospital room in the southwestern Korean city of Mokpo, Mr. Oh, a veteran sailor, confirmed investigators' conclusion that a third officer of the ship—and not the captain—was at the helm at the time of the capsizing.

"We didn't break the rules," Mr. Oh said. "We just couldn't do it. We were unable to approach the cabin where passengers were. The ship was just tilted too much, and so suddenly."

Mr. Oh said that while the third mate was on duty at the time and technically qualified to helm the boat, she was relatively inexperienced.

An official at South Korea's maritime ministry said that having a third officer steering the ship isn't a violation of protocol in and of itself, but said that a captain abandoning ship ahead of his passengers could subject him to criminal charges.

At the time, Mr. Oh and the captain were taking rest breaks in another room, he said.

According to protocol, in the event of an emergency, the captain is to come to the deck and take charge. But Mr. Oh said the boat tilted so quickly that while the captain did issue an evacuation order, the first mate likely failed to relay the message to the announcement booth. He added that a power failure may have also played a role in the delay.

Meanwhile, students told reporters from a hospital where they are recuperating that passengers were given instructions to stay put on the foundering vessel, rather than try to jump into the sea.

As the ship began to list, Cho Dae-sub, a 16-year-old student who was on board the ferry, said that everyone was instructed to stay put.

But Mr. Cho disobeyed the order, helping a few classmates clamber higher before jumping into the water himself, where he was rescued, he recalls.

"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed. I don't know what to say," the captain, 69-year-old Lee Jun-seok told a group of reporters on Thursday, television footage showed.

One South Korean media report suggested the loss of life may also be exacerbated by a lack of available lifeboats.

In the interview, Mr. Oh said that by the time the evacuation order wa sgiven, the boat had already listed 90 degrees. He said the ship's crew members scrambled to release lifeboats, but the ship was keeled over so far that they couldn't reach them.  

For more on this topic read:  'Captains Who Abandon Ship:  Are They Breaking The Law?   on ABC News.  

*Jeyup S. Kwaak, Yuka Hayashi, Eric Pfanner, Alexander Martin and Min-Jeong Lee contributed to this article.
*Image credits:  Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr (CC 2.0)
*Original story:  Wall Street Journal via Google News (search term: news)

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