The captain and crew of a ferry that sank off the southwest coast took no emergency measures but simply instructed passengers over the ferry's public address system to remain where they were and abandoned ship.
Lee Joon-seok (69) and some of his crew were among the first to escape while hundreds of passengers became trapped in the capsized Sewol in waters off Jindo, South Jeolla Province. Prosecutors are considering an indictment.
Maritime police on Thursday said Lee put out a distress call to Jeju Island, where it was heading, at around 8:55 a.m. after the ferry began to capsize some three minutes earlier. At around 9 a.m., he realized the seriousness of the situation and ordered his crew to evacuate but apparently told the passengers to stay put.
According to survivors, Lee told his crew to tell the passengers to remain in their cabins, boarded a lifeboat and left the scene of the accident.
At around 9:50 a.m., Lee was rescued by maritime police along with his chief engineer. Even then passengers were being instructed by crew to wait inside the safe cabins since it was "dangerous" to go outside.
Lee set foot on dry land at 11 a.m. even before the ferry was completely submerged at 11: 20 a.m.
Experts said the mistakes of the captain and crew played a decisive role in driving the number of fatalities into the hundreds.
Kim Chul-seung at Mokpo National Maritime University said, "A ship's captain is responsible for taking control to ensure the safety of every passenger, so this behavior is hard to understand. It looks like the number of deaths increased because the captain failed to do his job properly."
Lee was questioned by maritime police in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province on Thursday morning and apologized to the victims and their families. Asked by reporters to comment, Lee said, "I'm sorry. I am ashamed of myself." He had no answer to the question why he left the passengers behind.
Lee told police that he did not know what was going on. He said he heard no sound suggesting the vessel hit a rock. When asked why he bailed out so fast, Lee said he panicked after he saw the rescue boats and did not realize he was among the first to be rescued.
Lee and his crew face criminal prosecution. Under the relevant laws a ship's captain must take necessary steps to rescue others in an emergency. Failure to do so carries a jail sentence of up to five years.
Unpremeditated homicide also carries a five-year sentence and a fine of up to W20 million (US$1=W1,040).