South Korean President Park Geun Hye says the actions of the captain and crew of a ferry that sank last week with hundreds feared dead are tantamount to murder.
Sixty-four people are known to have died and 238 are missing, presumed dead, in the sinking of the Sewol ferry last Wednesday. Most of the victims are high school children.
Captain Lee Joon Seok, 69, and two other crew members were arrested last week on negligence charges, with prosecutors announcing four further arrests - two first mates, one second mate and a chief engineer - on Monday. Several crew members, including the captain, left the ferry as it was sinking, ahead of the passengers, witnesses have said. Park said the crew's desertion was tantamount to murder.
''Above all, the conduct of the captain and some crew members is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense, and it was like an act of murder that cannot and should not be tolerated,'' Yonhap news agency quoted her as saying during a meeting with aides.
Lee, the captain, said in a promotional video four years ago that the journey from the port city of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju was safe - as long as passengers followed the instructions of the crew. He also told a newspaper that he had been involved in a sea accident off the coast of Japan years before.
The irony of the video is the crew ordered the passengers to stay put in their cabins as the ferry sank. As is customary in hierarchical Korean society, the orders were not questioned.
However, many of those who escaped alive either did not hear or flouted the instructions and were rescued as they jumped off the deck. Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers on a high school outing.
''Passengers who take our ship to and from Incheon and Jeju can enjoy a safe and pleasant trip and I believe it is safer than any other vehicle as long as they follow the instructions of our crew members,'' Lee said in the 2010 promotional video, according to transcripts broadcast by regional cable station OBS. The Jeju Today newspaper interviewed Lee in 2004 when he spoke of close shaves at sea including passing through a typhoon and a previous sinking off Japan.
''The first ship I took was a log carrier vessel and it capsized near Okinawa. A helicopter from Japan's Self-Defence Force came and rescued me. Had it not been for their help, I wouldn't be here now.''
The newspaper did not give further details.
''I KNOW HOW HE SAID 'DAD'''
Parents of the children missing in the accident in what is likely to turn out to be one of South Korea's worst maritime disasters sat exhausted from days of grief, waiting for the almost inevitable news that their loved ones had died.
The have spent all their time since the accident in a gymnasium in the port city of Jindo, taking it in turns to vent their anger at the crew's inaction and slow pace of the rescue operation.
One of those waiting in the gymnasium was Kim Chang Gu, whose son Kim Dong Hyup is among the missing. ''I dream about him and hear hallucinatory sounds,'' he told Reuters. ''Somebody told me he was alive but I now have given up. I know how he said 'Dad'. I keep hearing that.''
Divers are retrieving the bodies at a faster pace and some parents have moved from the gymnasium to the pier to await news.Others stay put on their mattresses in the gym, where one by one, parents are informed that a body matches the family DNA swab, prompting wailing and collapses.
Two U.S. underwater drones have been deployed in the search for bodies, a coastguard official said. Strong tides hampered operations overnight but the weather was better on today. A clearer picture has started to emerge of the time around the accident after coastguards released a recording of a conversation between vessel controllers and the ship.
Witnesses have said the Sewol turned sharply before it began listing. It is still not clear why the vessel turned. It took more than two hours for it to capsize completely but passengers were ordered to stay put in their cabins.
As the probe focuses on the crew's actions and when - if at all - they issued the evacuation order, investigators have collected a vast trove of chat records from popular app Kakao Talk to trace the final moments on board the sinking ship.
Survivors say crew members instructed them to stay put while the ship continued to list dramatically, delaying an evacuation operation that could have saved many lives.
"We are seeking to use the Kakao Talk conversations the people onboard exchanged during the time of the accident for our investigation," one unnamed prosecutor told reporters.
Prosecutors have also collected phone records from all crew members.
Lee was not on the bridge when the ship turned. Navigation was in the hands of a 26-year old third mate who was in charge for the first time on that part of the journey, according to crew members. The transcript shows crew on the ship worried there were not enough rescue boats to take all the passengers. Witnesses said the captain and some crew members took to rescue boats before the passengers.
Lee said earlier he feared that passengers would be swept away by the ferocious currents if they leapt into the sea. He has not explained why he left the vessel.
Pupils at the children's school in Ansan, a gritty commuter town on the outskirts of Seoul, set up shrines to the dead and posted messages for the missing.
The vice-principal of the school, who survived the accident, hanged himself outside the gymnasium in Jindo in another blow to the school. His body was discovered by police on Friday.
- Reuters, Bloomberg, AP, AFP