3 arrested, accused of destroying evidence in S. Korea ferry probe

South Korea Sinking Ship -- April 16

JINDO, South Korea – The scope of wrongdoing in the South Korean ferry sinking may extend far beyond the ship’s crew, as prosecutors now believe evidence has been destroyed and that officials from an emergency call center and a local Coast Guard office may have failed to do their jobs.

Three members of the Korea Shipping Association’s Incheon office were arrested on suspicion of destroying evidence connected to the ferry investigation, Incheon’s chief prosecutor said Monday.

The office’s director was among those arrested and accused of destroying evidence related to the probe of Chonghaejin, the company that owns the ferry, prosecutor Song In-taek said.

Korea Shipping Association is a trade group that promotes the interests of the country’s shipping industry.

And another prosecutor’s office has issued search warrants for both the South Jeolla province emergency service operations center and the Coast Guard in Mokpo for alleged dereliction of duty, said Yang Joong-jin, the chief prosecutor in Mokpo.

The South Jeolla emergency center provides 119 service, which is akin to 911 emergency service in the United States.

The arrests and search warrants follow a spate of detentions after the ferry disaster on April 16. At least 189 bodies have been found, and 113 people are still missing from the sinking off the southwest coast of South Korea.

The ship’s captain and 14 other crew members have also been arrested. Prosecutors in Mokpo, South Korea, said all 15 crew members in charge of sailing and the engine room have been indicted and are being held in the Mokpo prison.

Yang Joong-Jin, the senior prosecutor for the investigation task force, said they all face charges of “causing death by abandoning (ship), and violation of the country’s marine law, the Rescue and Aid at Sea and in the River Act.”

Captain rescued in his underwear

Newly released video from the Coast Guard shows the captain of the ferry, Lee Joon-seok, being rescued in his shorts by Coast Guard members.

At a press conference Monday, two Coast Guard members defended Lee’s rescue.

Capt. Kim Kyung Il said he didn’t know he was helping the ferry’s captain escape the ship.

“No, absolutely not. I didn’t find out until later,” Kim said. “During the rescue, people were just dropping from the ferry … falling into the sea.”

Coast Guard member Kim Yong Ki said it was difficult to distinguish between crew members and passengers.

“Everyone was wearing life vests so we couldn’t tell who was crew or who was a passenger,” he said. “The life vest covers the uniform. We could see the sleeves but in that situation we are not thinking about that.”

Final words of passengers

“Why can’t they tell us what’s going on?”

“Wow, it’s tilting a lot. We’re tilting to this side. Can’t move.”

“You think I’m really gonna die?”

A teenage boy who died on the sunken ferry captured these desperate moments on cell phone video, according to South Korean national TV network JTBC.

After the boy’s body was found, authorities gave his father his cell phone. Its memory card was still intact.

But the father couldn’t bear to watch the entire clip from the doomed ship. Instead, he gave the video to JTBC, which shared a roughly three-minute audio clip with CNN.

In the video, some appeared to take comfort in the fact they were wearing life vests.

“I’m wearing the life vest,” one passenger says.

“I’m wearing one, too. I really have to,” another replies.

But the life jackets didn’t save everyone. Over the weekend, divers found the bodies of 48 girls — wearing their life jackets — pressed into a room too small for so many people.

The video also captured orders carried over the ship’s loudspeaker:

“Once again, please do not move from your current location,” a voice says. “Absolutely do not move.”

Prime Minister resigns

South Korea’s prime minister announced his resignation Sunday, taking responsibility for the slow initial reaction to the ferry’s sinking.

Prime Minister Chung Hong-won explained his decision on national television. He apologized “on behalf of the government for the many problems that arose during the first response and the subsequent rescue operation,” in addition to “problems that existed before the accident.”

“During the search process, the government took inadequate measures and disappointed the public,” Chung said. “I should take responsibility for everything as the prime minister, but the government can assume no more. So I will resign as prime minister.”

Prosecutors have said that authorities have yet to determine what caused the sinking. But leading theories include changes made to increase the ferry’s passenger capacity, and shifting cargo.