South Korea Ferry Captain Arrested as Rescuers Say There’s “Almost Zero” Chance of Survivors

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
April 19 2014 3:38 PM

South Korea Ferry Captain Arrested as Rescuers Say There’s “Almost Zero” Chance of Survivors

485594001-members-of-south-korean-rescue-team-carry-the-body-of-a_1
Members of South Korean rescue team carry the body of a passenger retrieved from a capsized ferry at a harbour in Jindo on Sunday

Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

The captain of the South Korean ferry that sank on Wednesday was arrested Saturday along with two crew members, including the 25-year-old third mate who was actually at the helm when the ship capsized. The number of confirmed dead rose to 33 after four bodies were found, reports the Associated Press. That number will almost certainly rise. The head of a nongovernmental group working with officials on the rescue efforts said that “the changes are almost zero that we can still find a survivor in there,” reports the Wall Street Journal. According to the official count, 269 people are still missing.

"I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims," 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok, the ferry captain, told reporters after his arrest. He also went on to defend his decision not to call for an immediate evacuation.  “At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” Lee said, according to the AP.

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Prosecutors said on Saturday that Park Han-gyeol, the 25-year-old third mate (some say she is 26) who was steering the ferry when it sank. It was her first time navigating the treacherous Maenggol Waterway, which “has a reputation for having one of the most rapid and unpredictable currents around the peninsula,” according to the New York Times. Although having the third mate steer the ferry was not a violation of protocol, the Wall Street Journal points out that another crew member said she was in charge during the most dangerous part of the route that is difficult “even for the most experienced officer.” Meanwhile, records show that the ferry operator—Chonghaejin Marine Co.—“has been in marine accidents involving engine trouble and collisions every two to three years in the recent past,” reports the Korea Times.  

The South Korean ferry accident marked the second time in a little more than two years that a captain has fled a sinking ship, putting a dent on the popular idea that a captain always goes down with the ship, notes the New York Times. Experts say the attitude is shocking and violates all accepted norms and regulations.  “That guy’s an embarrassment to anybody who’s ever had command at sea,” said John B. Padgett III, a retired United States Navy rear admiral and former submarine captain.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

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