Ferry Captain Arrest Sought for Leaving Bridge at Critical Time

Divers entered the doomed ferry, searching for survivors.

April 18, 2014— -- The black keel of the stricken ferry that has jutted above the water since the ship sank with hundreds of people on board slipped below the surface today as hope for survivors dwindled.

The death toll rose to 28, with 268 listed as missing, most of them high school students. The tragedy was compounded when officials found the vice principal who had led the school trip hanging from a tree by his belt.

The school official was identified as Kang Min-Kyu. He had been rescued from the sinking ferry and he left behind a note saying he was tormented with guilt for having survived while so many students were missing, according to the Associated Press. He asked that he be cremated and his ashes scattered at the ferry site.

PHOTOS: Sadness, Desperation as Ferry Sinks Off South Korea's Coast

Investigators have asked the courts for arrest warrants that named the captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, and two crew members. The police said that Lee was not on the bridge at a time the ship was scheduled to make a turn, leaving the third mate in charge of the vessel. The third mate had just over a year’s worth of experience, West Maritime Police told ABC News.

Police also said the captain abandoned people who needed help, and delayed evacuating passengers.

"The captain escaped before the passengers," Yang Jung-jin, a senior prosecutor, told the AP.

But the announcement telling passengers to stay in place was “because rescue ships had not arrived," Lee said to reporters gathered outside the prosecutor's office, the Yonhap news agency reported, and he added that he eventually “gave an evacuation order."

He also admitted that he was not on the bridge at the moment the ferry made a sharp turn. "At the time [the ship] was turning, I had gone to the bedroom(s) for a moment,” he said, according to Yonhap, and he added that he had not been drinking.

Authorities pumped air into the ship earlier today in case there were survivors in an air pocket in the ship, even after the ship's keel later slipped below the water. The site of the sinking is now marked with buoys.

Three vessels with cranes arrived at the site to prepare to salvage the ferry. But they will not hoist the ship before getting approval from family members of those believed trapped inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, a coast guard officer told the AP.

Divers were able to enter the ship's cargo deck today, Coast Guard officials said. The divers found many bodies huddled together, but they were unable to bring them up to the surface due to time restrictions.

Fresh details emerged from the moment when the vessel began to sink. The accident happened at a point where the ferry had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok told the AP that investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn that was so sharp that it caused the ship to list.

The captain's absence from the bridge may also be a factor. Yang said the turn was made when the ship was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together, something he said is required by law so the captain can help a mate make a turn.

A transcript of the ship's distress calls to the harbor at the island of Jeju records the ferry crew saying they need help fast because the ship was tilting and a harbor official urging the ship's crew to get passengers evacuated.

Transcript of Conversation Between Ferry, Shore

A crew member on the ferry can be heard replying, “It’s hard for people to move.”

Frantic, harrowing moments followed. Newly released video from inside the ship shows that fight for survival. The video, released by Korea’s KBS network, shows passengers growing afraid.

“Water’s rising,” one of the passengers shouts. “Water’s coming in.”

One man used a fire hose as a lifeline.

As the ferry tilted before its watery descent, the passengers were told to put on life jackets and stay where they were. Some survivors said they never heard an order to evacuate.

Most of the missing were students on a class trip from Danwon High School. The school, located in Ansan, near Seoul, has become a place of grieving. Relatives waited inside the school’s gym as authorities arrived, sharing dreadful updates: another body discovered, another young life cut short.

Surviving students are devastated by the tragedy. Lee Songyong’s best friend is missing.

“My friend, he was ridiculously nice,” he said, crying. “I have no idea how someone is going to survive in that cold water.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.