Last Updated Apr 18, 2014 11:15 PM EDT
MOKPO, South Korea -- The captain of a sunken South Korean ferry was arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, as investigators looked into whether his evacuation order came too late to save lives. Two crew members were also arrested, a prosecutor said.
The disaster three days ago left more than 270 people missing and at least 29 bodies recovered.
Rescuers planned 40 dives Saturday in an attempt to enter the ferry, the Sewol, which sank on Wednesday. A civilian diver saw three bodies inside the ship through windows but was unable to break the windows, said Kwon Yong-deok, a coast guard official. Strong currents and rain made it difficult to get inside the ferry, where most of the passengers are believed to have been trapped, coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said.
As the last bit of the sunken ferry's hull slipped Friday beneath the murky water off southern South Korea, there was a new victim: a vice principal of the high school whose students were among the passengers was found hanged, an apparent suicide.
The investigation into South Korea's ferry disaster focused on the sharp turn it took just before it began listing and on the possibility that a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives, officials said Friday.
Police said the high school vice principal who had been rescued from the ferry, Kang Min-kyu, was found hanging Friday from a pine tree on Jindo, an island near the sunken ship where survivors have been housed. He was the leader of a group of 323 students traveling on the ship on a school excursion, and said in a suicide note that he felt guilty for being alive while more than 200 of his students were missing. He asked that his body be cremated and the ashes scattered at the accident site.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said the ferry captain, Lee Joon-seok, 68, faces five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Yang said earlier that Lee was not on the bridge when the ferry 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. The captain also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, he said.
"The captain escaped before the passengers," Yang said.
"I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims," Lee told reporters after his arrest, as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed.
"I gave instructions on the route, then briefly went to the bedroom when it (the sinking) happened," he said.
The captain defended his decision to wait before ordering an evacuation.
A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange shows that an official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center recommended evacuation just five minutes after the Sewol's distress call. But helmsman Oh Yong-seok told The Associated Press that it took 30 minutes for the captain to give the evacuation order as the boat listed. Several survivors told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.
"At the time, the current was very strong, temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties," Lee told reporters. "The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships other boats nearby at that time."
Officials said there were 174 survivors from the ferry. With the chances of survival becoming slimmer by the hour, it was shaping up to be one of South Korea's worst disasters, made all the more heartbreaking by the likely loss of so many young people, aged 16 or 17.
Emotions boiled over Friday at a gymnasium in Jindo, where relatives have been waiting for word, watching the news on giant screens.
"My heart is twisted," a 19-year-old woman told CBS News. Her 17-year-old sister was on the ferry. She and her mother have been in Jindo since the ferry sank, and although they have mats to sleep on, they have not slept much.
The ship had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 476 people aboard. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore at 9 a.m. Soon, only its dark blue keel jutted out over the surface. By late Friday, as even that had disappeared, rescuers floated two giant beige buoys to mark the area. Navy divers attached underwater air bags to the 6,852-ton ferry to prevent it from sinking further, the Defense Ministry said.
Coast guard officials said divers began pumping air into the ship in an attempt to sustain any survivors.
On Jindo's shore, angry and bewildered relatives watched the rescue attempts. Some held a Buddhist prayer ritual, crying and praying for their relatives' safe return.
"I want to jump into the water with them," said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of a missing student, Park Ye-ji. "My loved one is under the water and it's raining. Anger is not enough."
South Korean officials said the accident happened at a point where the ferry had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn that was so sharp that it caused the ship to list.
The ship made the sharp turn between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m., but it's not known whether that was done voluntarily or because of some external factor, said Nam Jae-heon, a spokesman for the Maritime Ministry.
Two crewmembers on the bridge of the ferry - a 25-year-old female mate and a 55-year-old helmsman - also failed to reduce speed in the waters near the islands, Yang said. They also did not carry out necessary measures to save lives, he said.
According to the transcript of the ship-to-shore radio exchange, the evacuation recommendation came from an unidentified official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center at 9 a.m., just five minutes after a distress call by the Sewol. In the exchange, the Sewol crewmember says: "Currently the body of the ship has listed to the left. The containers have listed as well."
The Jeju VTS officer responds: "OK. Any loss of human life or injuries?" The ship's answer is: "It's impossible to check right now. The body of the ship has tilted, and it's impossible to move."
The VTS officer then says: "Yes, OK. Please wear life jackets and prepare as the people might have to abandon ship."
"It's hard for people to move," replies the crew member on the radio.
Oh, the helmsman on the ferry, told the AP that the first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were as the crew tried to control the ship.
About 30 minutes later, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn't sure if, in the confusion and chaos on the bridge, the order was relayed to the passengers. Several survivors told the AP that they never heard any evacuation order.
Earlier Lee, the captain, made a brief, videotaped appearance with his face hidden by a gray hoodie.
"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," Lee said. "I don't know what to say."
Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, in Incheon, the operator of the ferry, added more cabin rooms to three floors after its 2012 purchase of the ship, which was built in Japan in 1994, an official at the private Korean Register of Shipping told the AP.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter was still under investigation, said the extension work between October 2012 and February 2013 increased the Sewol's weight by 187 tons and added enough room for 117 more people. The Sewol had a capacity of 921 when it sank.
As is common in South Korea, the ship's owner paid for a safety check by the Korean Register of Shipping, which found that the Sewol passed all safety tests, including whether it could stabilize in the event of tilting, the official said.
Prosecutors raided and seized materials and documents from the ship's operator, as well as six companies that had conducted safety checks, revamped the ship, or loaded container boxes, a sign that investigators will likely examine the ship's addition of rooms and how containers were loaded.The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.