APRIL 17, 2014— -- The captain of a ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea Wednesday, leaving nearly 300 people missing, is under investigation as a possible criminal and was one of the first people to escape the doomed vessel, Coast Guard officials said.
Lee Joon-seok, 69, left the ferry on a lifeboat 32 minutes after reporting an accident, officials said.
The captain appeared on Korean television today, his face covered by a gray hoodie.
“I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” he said, as he was being questioned at the Mokpo Coast Guard Office.
It's unclear which of his actions could be considered criminal.
About 270 people remain missing, with 25 fatalities confirmed and the death toll expected to rise. Hundreds of Navy and Coast Guard divers are battling murky conditions today, searching for survivors. But as the hours pass, relatives of the missing passengers are losing hope.
A crew member on the Sewol, which was carrying 475 people, told The Associated Press that an immediate evacuation order was not issued because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to tilt.
The first instructions from the captain were for the passengers to put on life jackets and stay put, and it was not until about 30 minutes later that he ordered an evacuation, Oh Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member, told the AP.
As passengers waited, many of them, including students, sent text messages to loved ones, a glimpse into the desperate situation inside the crippled vessel.
"Dad, don't worry. I've got a life vest on and we're huddled together," one student, identified only by her last name, Shin, texted her father, according to MBC News, a Korean news station.
The father replied: "I know the rescue is underway but make your way out if you can."
"Dad, I can't walk out," she replied. "The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted."
The student was among the missing passengers, many of them high schoolers at Danwon High School in Ansan. The students were on a class trip.
Today's rescue efforts have been marked by rain, strong wind, currents and fog, as well as a lack of organization. Coast guard crews tried to inject air into the boat, but that endeavor was unsuccessful because of the poor weather conditions.
Additionally, the rescue operation center had difficulty communicating with search crews at the sinking site, which is about an hour's boat ride from Jindo Island.
Relatives of passengers yelled at authorities, demanding answers and seeking miracles at Jindo Island. Some family members visited the location where the passengers are believed to have been trapped. The only hope is that maybe, somehow the passengers are alive, saved by a pocket of air.
Other parents gathered at Danwon High School, holding a candlelight vigil.
In Mokpo, a city close to the accident site, relatives of the dead students wailed and sobbed as ambulances drove away with the bodies, headed to Ansan. The families, who spent a mostly sleepless night at the Mokpo hospital, followed the ambulances in their cars.
The family of one of the dead, 24-year-old teacher Choi Hye-jung, spoke about a young woman who loved to boast of how her students would come to her office and give her hugs.
"She was very active and wanted to be a good leader," her father, Choi Jae-kyu, 53, said at Mokpo Jung-Ang Hospital while waiting for the arrival of his daughter's body. Choi's mother, sitting on a bench at the hospital, sobbed quietly with her head bent down on her knee.
The coast guard said it found three more bodies in the sea this morning, pushing the death toll to 10. The dead include a female crew member in her 20s, five high school students and two teachers. Dozens were injured. Coast guard officials put the number of survivors early today at 179.
One of the youngest survivors -- Kwon Ji-yeon, 6 -- lay in a hospital bed, tears welling in her eyes after the rescue. Machines around her beeped and buzzed. Tubes pumped oxygen into her nose.
Her parents and brother are missing.
Someone rescued Kwon from the sinking ferry, grabbing her as the ship's hallways filled with water. Her lifejacket was so big, it covered her entire head.
Authorities used social media to track down her uncle. She later nibbled on a chocolate bar, a cast snaked around her wrist, the machines continuing to beep and buzz.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.