A ferry that sank off the southwest coast on Wednesday was being steered by an inexperienced third mate.
A back-up captain, Lee Joon-seok (69) was in charge of 475 passengers aboard the ferry since the regular one, identified as Shin (47) was on vacation.
Lee apparently handed over to a 26-year-old woman identified by her surname Park at about 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, just an hour before the ferry capsized. Park was a brand-new employee who had worked for the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine, for only four months.
Third mates generally work as officers of the deck and take the helm between 8 a.m. and 12 noon, experts said.
Since graduating from Mokpo National Maritime University three years ago, Park worked for an international ferry company for 22 months, steering ships on the Incheon-China route before she started her current job.
Any passenger ferry of 3,000 tons or more, like the 6,825-ton Sewol, should be operated by a first or second mate with more than two lower-level mates aboard, according to the relevant regulations. There were six mates including the captain aboard the ill-fated ferry.
The captain can hand over the helm to a third mate when the ship passes a safe area but should stay in the wheelhouse and take control when the ship enters or leaves port or passes a dangerous area.
But a local coast guard quoted a shipmate as testifying that Lee was resting outside even when the ferry was passing the treacherous coastal waterway, where it capsized.
The captain could face up to a year in prison or a fine of up to W5 million (US$1=W1,040) for leaving the bridge and getting the third mate to steer the ferry.