Arrest warrant issued for captain, two crew members of sunken South Korea ferry

Families and parents of students who were on the South Korean ferry that capsized await answers and word about their loved ones on Thursday, April 17, 2014. (Credit: CNN)

Families and parents of students who were on the South Korean ferry that capsized await answers and word about their loved ones on Thursday, April 17, 2014. (Credit: CNN)

JINDO, South Korea — An arrest warrant for the captain and two other crew members of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol was issued, a spokesman for the joint prosecutor and police investigative team said Friday. The spokesman did not provide any further detail.

Also Friday, the high school vice principal who was rescued from the sunken South Korean ferry was found hanging from a tree, police said.

Kang Min Kyu, 52, was on board the ferry along with more than 300 students from Ansan Danwon High School. He 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 out.

It’s the latest tragic turn after the ferry’s sinking, which remains unexplained.

The death toll from Wednesday’s disaster rose to 28 on Friday as divers raced to reach the hundreds of people still believed to be inside ship.

Divers breached the hull of a sunken ferry Friday, and two managed to enter the second deck — the cargo deck, the South Korean Coast Guard said. But rough waters forced them back out again. They didn’t find any bodies in their brief search.

“The guide line that links the sunken ship and the rescue vessel has been cut off,” the Coast Guard said. “Still, the entrance into the ship is open, and we plan to resume operation to enter the ship.”

It’s a race against time.

Hopes of finding the roughly 270 people still missing dimmed further when the entire boat became submerged underwater Friday. Until then, part of the ship’s blue-and-white hull was still poking out of the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea.

On top of that, divers must contend with fierce winds and rough waters.

“There are heavy currents in the area. So the vessel itself is not stable in the water. So you are, by default, putting divers at risk,” U.S. Navy Capt. Heidi Agle said. The U.S. Navy is assisting with the South Korean search.

The cause of the accident still isn’t known. But a Korean prosecutor said the captain wasn’t in the steering room when the ship started to sink; a third mate was at the helm.

“It is not clear where (the captain) 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 Friday.

The captain, Lee Joon Suk, was one of at least 179 people rescued soon after Wednesday’s sinking. As of Friday morning, 271 people remained missing, the Coast Guard said.

Anger and disgust

Relatives of passengers expressed increasing disgust and anger over 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, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the sunken boat.

Others camped out 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.

Several relatives collapsed. At least two women were taken away on stretchers.

Part of the frustration stems from the conflicting information reported by officials.

In the hours after the sinking, several analysts speculated the ferry may have veered off course and struck an object. But the South Korean Oceans and Fisheries Ministry said Thursday that it had approved the boat’s intended route, and the actual course did not deviate significantly.

Yet Kim Soo Hyeon, the chief of South Korea’s Yellow Sea Maritime Police Agency, later said it appears the ship did deviate from its planned route but did not appear it hit a rock.

Adding to the pain for families, police said texts and social media messages claiming to be from missing passengers turned out to be fake.

“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.”

Cranes arrive

The Coast Guard said workers continued to pump air into the hull of the submerged ship Friday, but could not stop its descent.

Any hope for survival largely hinges on whether passengers may be floundering in air pockets within the ship. Such cases are not unheard of.

In May 2013, a tugboat capsized off the coast of west Africa. Rescuers pulled out a man from 100 feet below surface who survived 2 and 1/2 days inside a 4-square-foot air pocket.

That’s one reason family members aren’t ready to give up hope just yet.

“When they’re in a small compartment … with an air bubble, they really have to stay calm and breathe shallow and conserve the oxygen in that space,” former Navy diver Bobbie Scholley said.

But in the case of the South Korean ferry, there’s another challenge to contend with: time and temperature.”Absolutely, there could be areas in there where there is breathable air,” Mike Dean, the U.S. Navy deputy director for salvage and diving, said. “But the trouble right now is the temperature and getting people to them.”

Adding to the relative’s despair was the arrival of three 3,600-ton seaborne cranes. They fear the cranes’ presence means the mission is shifting from a search to a salvage effort.

A fourth crane will arive later.

A Coast Guard official assured families nothing would be done to jeopardize the safety of possible survivors.

“Let me be clear,” Kim Soo-hyun told journalists. “There won’t be any salvaging work done against the will of the bereaved families.”

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