JINDO, South Korea — The captain and two crew members of a ferry that capsized, leaving more than 270 people — most of them students — missing, were arrested early Saturday, the authorities said.
The captain, Lee Jun-seok, 69, was charged with abandoning the boat and its passengers at a time of crisis, among other counts, according to prosecutors. Lee as well as the third mate, a 26-year-old woman who the authorities said was steering the ship at the time of accident Wednesday, and another crew member were taken to jail with their hands cuffed after a judge approved their arrest warrants. The crew members also faced numerous charges.
“I bow before the people and grieved families and apologize,” Lee told reporters as he was led to jail. He added that he “partly” accepted the charges against him.
Not long after the arrests, officials said divers had discovered three bodies inside the ship.
As hope dwindled that any of the 236 missing students would be found alive, the high school was stunned Friday by more tragic news — the death of its vice principal in what was suspected to be a suicide.
The vice principal, Kang Min-kyu, 52, of Danwon High School, who survived the ferry accident, was found hanging from a tree near a gymnasium where families of the missing had gathered. The police suspected Kang had hanged himself.
“It’s too much, being alive alone while more than 200 of my students are missing,” he wrote in a note found in his wallet, according to the police. “Please place all the blame on me because I was in charge of the trip. Please cremate my body and scatter the ashes where the ship sank. Perhaps I should be a teacher for those missing children in the other world.”
On Friday, investigators said Lee, the ship’s captain, who has been criticized for being among the first to leave the sinking ship, was not at the steering house when the ferry, the Sewol, tilted and began sinking Wednesday morning.
“He temporarily left the steering command to his third shipmate,” said Park Jae-uk, a senior investigator.
The captain returned to the bridge as soon as the ship began tilting, Park said. The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the third mate had a year of experience steering ships, five months of it on the 6,825-ton Sewol.
The arrests came after more potential clues emerged as to how the ferry’s trip to the resort island of Jeju, which began Tuesday night in Incheon, a port west of Seoul, turned into one of South Korea’s worst disasters in decades. As of Friday afternoon, 29 deaths had been confirmed.
Officials confirmed Friday that they were investigating whether the ship, under the third mate’s command, made too sharp a turn on a curve in the sea route. They have raised the possibility that the vehicles and other heavy cargo on the ferry might not have been properly secured, in which case they could have slid to one side when the turn was made, causing the ship to tilt.
Also Friday, prosecutors raided the offices of the ship’s operator, the Cheonghaejin Marine Co., and a shipyard to investigate allegations that Cheonghaejin added more cabin rooms, probably making the ship top-heavy, to accommodate more passengers after buying the 20-year-old ferry from Japan in 2012. Although the Sewol passed balancing and other safety tests, officials were looking into whether the suspected structural change contributed to the accident.
They were also investigating widespread accounts that the crew had urged passengers to stay in their quarters even as the ship was sinking, instructions that may have resulted in many people being trapped.
Lee said that his ship broadcast instructions for passengers to stay put inside “because rescue boats had not arrived yet.” He said he eventually advised passengers to evacuate, but he did not clarify when. He also did not say whether his evacuation order was properly delivered to passengers amid the chaos.
Lee also said that he was visiting his bedroom cabin briefly when the accident happened. He denied he was intoxicated at the time.
The captain said the ship began showing signs of trouble at 8:50 a.m. Wednesday. The ship sent its first distress signal eight minutes later.
The third mate, who was in charge at the bridge while Lee was away, did not respond to reporters’ questions Saturday as she was led out of the courtroom. But a 55-year-old coxswain, the third crew member arrested, said the ship was attempting a usual turn on the shipping route when it swerved more rapidly than expected.
On Friday evening, hundreds of students held a candlelight vigil for Kang, their vice principal, on the school grounds in Ansan, a city south of Seoul. One student held a message for the missing students that said: “We are waiting. Please come back alive.”
On Thursday evening, families threw water bottles at fellow teachers who had visited the gymnasium and knelt before the families in apology. Kang was not there, and his colleagues had asked the police to find him.
“He must have felt a terrible sense of guilt,” said Whang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University in Seoul. “He must have suffered unbearable regrets for not going against the ship’s instruction and immediately evacuating his students.”
After two days of futile efforts, South Korean divers Friday managed to enter the capsized ferry where many of the 273 missing people were feared to have been trapped when the ship sank. But officials warned that the work would be painstaking and difficult.
One of the leaders of the diving effort, Hwang Dae-sik, said Friday that underwater visibility at the site was so poor and currents so rapid that the work was “like moving against the wind of a typhoon while barely being able to see your palm.” Currents were moving diagonally across the hull, creating swirls and making it tricky for divers to enter the ship, he said.
“We have been trying to put ropes into the ship so that we can use them as guides as we crawl into the ship in the darkness and hopefully bring out missing people,” Hwang, a senior official with the Maritime Rescue and Salvage Association, said in an interview.
Using such ropes, two divers managed to enter the ship’s cargo deck but returned without finding anyone, officials said.
Despite the slow pace of the work and the days that have passed since the sinking, the news that the divers had entered the ship raised hope among hundreds of parents who have been waiting on this nearby island that survivors might yet be found.
Rescuers were also using high-pressure hoses to pump oxygen into the ship, which by Friday was completely underwater, a tiny tip of its hull occasionally appearing between the waves. The rescuers were hoping that the oxygen would reach people who might yet be alive in air pockets within the submerged vessel.
Four cranes arrived on the scene Friday as officials prepared for the eventual salvaging of the vessel. But experts said it would take days, if not weeks, to complete the difficult task of raising the ship.