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South Korean leader says ferry captain's actions 'tantamount to murder'

| Monday, April 21, 2014, 5:48 p.m.

MOKPO, South Korea — South Korean President Park Geun-hye rebuked the captain and crew members of a sunken ferry on Monday, saying their actions in abandoning a vessel with hundreds of passengers still aboard were “tantamount to murder.”

Park's comments were made amid steady criticism about her government's response to the disaster amid a growing sense of fury in South Korea about alleged criminal incompetence aboard the ferry Sewol.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, was arrested on Friday along with two other crew members, and prosecutors said four crew members — two first mates, one second mate and an engineer — have been detained. They await charges stemming from the quick abandonment of the ship and their failure to assist passengers in evacuating.

As South Korea mourns and prepares for a long series of funerals, it is grappling with an emerging criminal case that could sort out some of the responsibility for the disaster. Some South Koreans, though acknowledging the apparent irresponsibility of the crew, said Park's comments on the case were made prematurely and could complicate the emotional proceedings.

During a meeting with advisers, Park criticized the captain for leaving a 25-year-old third mate — “an entry-level worker” — in charge of navigating the narrow waterway where the ferry ran into trouble, according to a transcript from the presidential office. Park said that a maritime operator on shore repeatedly urged the Sewol to evacuate its passengers — something the Sewol crew members said was impossible because the vessel had tilted drastically.

“Right after the accident, the captain didn't comply with orders for evacuation from the maritime operator and told the passengers to stay where they are,” Park said. “But he then abandoned them and escaped first. This is unthinkable legally and morally.”

Park vowed an investigation into whether crew members had proper knowledge of safety measures and whether inspections had been carried out properly. She raised concern about the oversight of the Korea Shipping Association, a safety watchdog that provides membership status to shipping companies. Park said that the set-up had resulted in “a systematic problem.”

The 6,825-ton vessel was sailing from Incheon to Jeju when it capsized and sank in the Yellow Sea. The exact cause of the disaster is unknown, but some investigators have speculated that a rapid turn could have knocked shipping containers and other heavy cargo out of place, throwing the boat off balance.

An extensive transcript of contact between the ferry and the shore indicated a period of indecision and chaos on board for almost 45 minutes after the vessel's distress call. If an evacuation order was given —the captain says it was; many survivors say they never heard it — it occurred at a time when the vessel was listing severely. As of Monday, 86 have been found dead and 220 remain missing.

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