Ferry captain, government under fire

April 17, 2014
Lee Joon-seok, middle, the captain of the ferry Sewol that capsized off the southwest coast on Wednesday morning, went under questioning at the Mokpo Coast Guard Station in South Jeolla Province, Thursday. Lee, who was among the first to be rescued, said he was not sure about the cause of the sinking. (Yonhap)

Lee Joon-seok, middle (whose face is covered), the captain of the ferry Sewol that capsized off the southwest coast on Wednesday morning, went under questioning at the Mokpo Coast Guard Station in South Jeolla Province, Thursday. Lee, who was among the first to be rescued, said he was not sure about the cause of the sinking. (Yonhap)

By Jun Ji-hye

President Park Geun-hye visited the site of the sunken ferry Sewol, Thursday, to console grieving families of the missing and encourage rescue workers, but people are angry with what they've been seeing and hearing. (Yonhap)

President Park Geun-hye visited the site of the sunken ferry Sewol, Thursday, to console grieving families of the missing and encourage rescue workers, but people are angry with what they’ve been seeing and hearing. (Yonhap)

The captain of the ill-fated Sewol ferry is the focus of public outrage after it became known that he and six other crewmembers were among the first to be rescued when the vessel was sinking.

Captain Lee Joon-seok, along with a chief engineer surnamed Sohn and other crews, was escaped from the 6,835-ton ferry Sewol at around 9:30 a.m. about 40 minutes after the ferry reportedly struck a submerged rock.

A number of survivors told reporters that they witnessed the captain waiting on the deck to be saved. They also said that Lee was among the first to jump down into a Coast Guard vessel.

“I couldn’t see any crew when the ship was going down. Adult passengers around me told me to wear life jackets,” one student survivor told SBS.

The sinking of the ferry, with mostly high school students on board, left over 280 people missing while nine are confirmed dead as of Thursday afternoon.

About 30 crew members on board were mostly rescued including the captain, except for Park Ji-young in her early 20s who was found dead Wednesday. She was in charge of on board announcements.

The anger of the families was further fueled following reports that when Lee was asked by journalists about the cause of the sinking in hospital, he was drying wet banknotes on his bed.

Lee is suspected of being in violation of the Seamen’s Law that stipulates that a captain and senior officers should not leave a ship before all passengers are safely off the vessel.

The Coast Guard is also considering malfunctioning lifeboats as a major cause of increased casualties. One photo of the sinking ship incident shows just one boat deployed, while two others were inoperable after being detached from the ship. Another 12 boats remained attached to the port side.

Government causes confusion

The authorities also confused and angered the parents of missing students by announcing contradictory numbers of the dead and missing several times.

The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters at first announced that a total of 368 people were rescued, but it overturned the statement within an hour, saying 164 were rescued. This naturally increased the number of missing persons by almost 200.

The Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education made an even greater mistake, announcing that the students of Danwon High School had, at one point, all been rescued.

But the office later admitted that this had been was false information, causing anger from parents who had, until the announcement, remained relatively relaxed.

A slight change in the number of casualties is normal after a major incident occurs, but a difference of almost 200 people is difficult to comprehend.

Politicians flock to Jindo

Many politicians are rushing to visit Jindo County of South Jeolla Province, an island near the location where the ferry capsized, to conduct what they say is a “spot inspection.”

Among them are Rep. Hwang Woo-yea, chairman of the ruling Saenuri Party, and Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo who co-chairs the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD).

Many of those running seats in the June 4 local elections are involved in activities.

But it remains questionable what politicians can do in such a desperate situation aside from saying, “Do your best to save people.”

In particular, Rep. Lee Yoon-seok of the NPAD was slammed for receiving preferential treatment after he was allowed to go aboard a Coast Guard ship, which parents of the missing students were refused access to, to view the scene of the accident.

Families vented their anger by pouring water onto Prime Minister Chung Hong-won when he visited a gym in Jindo where family members were desperately waiting for any news of missing relatives.

 

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