SEOUL — Four officials with the operator of the doomed South Korean ferry have been arrested on charges of overloading the ship with cargo, a senior prosecutor said Tuesday, as President Park Geun-hye attributed one of her country’s worst peacetime disasters to corporate greed.
Since the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol sank off southwestern South Korea on April 16, damning charges of poor seamanship, corporate greed, and lax regulatory enforcement of safety measures have surfaced, leaving little doubt among South Koreans that the ferry, in retrospect, had been a recipe for disaster.
With the arrest of four officials of Chonghaejin Marine Co., including a 62-year-old executive who was put behind bars Tuesday, investigators formally identified overloading as one of the causes of the disaster, which left 263 dead and 39 missing as of Tuesday.
The officials faced criminal charges, including accidental homicide. They were accused of contributing to the deaths of passengers by ordering the overloading of the ship or ignoring the danger that the excessive cargo and its improper stowage caused to the vessel’s stability.
Investigators had earlier said the Sewol suddenly listed and began sinking while making a sharp turn amid a strong current.
They also attributed the accident to the recent addition of cabins in the upper decks that made the ship top-heavy and impaired its ability to right itself after tilting.
Many of the vehicles, shipping containers, and other cargo on board were also poorly lashed or not tied down at all, letting them slide to the side when the ship tilted, further damaging its ability to recover its balance, they said.
“We are still calculating exactly how many tons of cargo the ship was carrying, but based on what we have found out so far, it’s clear that it was carrying more than allowed,” said Yang Joong-jin, a senior prosecutor involved in the investigation.
In South Korea, where memories of large-scale disasters, like the collapse of a Seoul department store that killed 501 people in 1995, remain fresh, the ferry disaster stood out as one of the most traumatizing.
Of the 302 people dead or missing, 250 were high school students who survivors said were trapped inside the ship because the crew repeatedly urged them to stay put while the ship was badly tilting.
Some of the trapped students asked for help or bid farewell to their families through cellphone text messages or video footage, leaving the country in a wrenching state of anguish, grief, and shame.
For three weeks, distraught families have camped out on a pier near the site of the sinking. Divers have been struggling against strong currents and poor visibility to reach the ship lying on its side 120 feet underwater.
Once there, they crawled through a dark maze of corridors and cabins clogged with debris to pull out scores of bodies. On Tuesday, one of the divers died after losing consciousness underwater.
“As the president, who must protect the lives of the people, I am sorry and heavy-hearted,” Park said while visiting a temple in central Seoul on Tuesday to mark Buddha’s birthday. “I am at a loss what to say to console the families who lost young students.”
It was her second apology in a week for failing to prevent the disaster and for the government’s fumbling of the early phases of rescue operations. Her approval ratings have plummeted in recent opinion surveys.
Park responded to the disaster with a vow to fight the “deep-rooted evils of the past” — collusive ties between shipping companies, private safety inspectors, and government ministries that she said created safety loopholes. On Tuesday, Park singled out businessmen who were “blinded by material greed and did not follow safety regulations” and regulators whose “irresponsibility in glossing over such injustice resulted in killing people.”
Prosecutors have raided the homes of a family that owns a major stake in Chonghaejin Marine through another company. They were also investigating two ship inspection agencies: the Korea Shipping Association and the Korean Register of Shipping.
The ship’s captain, Lee Jun-seok, and 14 other crew members have been arrested on charges of abandoning their ship first, without alerting or escorting passengers to evacuate.
The disaster has exposed enormous safety gaps in the country’s domestic ferry industry.