A South Korean ferry carrying a reported 376 passengers capsized on Wednesday, April 16 while headed to Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. As of Sunday, April 27, the death count totalled 187.
The majority of the 376 passengers on board were high school students going on a field trip to the resort island of Jeju. Over 100 passengers still remain missing. This case is the worst maritime disaster in the country since 1993.
South Korean coast guard confirmed the first distress call from the ferry, named the Sewol, did not come from the crew; it was from a boy who used his cell phone to contact emergency services for help from aboard the sinking ship. The coast guard added that the ship’s crew made its first distress call to maritime officials three minutes later.
The rescue divers have since found other ways to enter the submerged boat. More bodies have been found, increasing the death count. Numerous bodies were recovered on Tuesday, April 21, and 28 bodies on the day before.
According to Koh Myung-seok, a spokesman for the joint task force, rescuers will continue to focus their search on the third and fourth decks of the five-level ship.
Since then, South Korean authorities have decided to broaden their investigation on Monday, April 21, as they arrested four additional crew members and prohibited the family who owns the ferry’s operating company from leaving the country.
A prosecution official told the nation’s Yonhap News Agency, “The measure is to question them and hold them responsible for the poor management of the vessel.”
The ferry’s captain and two crew members have already been charged with negligence of duty and violating maritime law after abandoning the ship without efficiently helping passengers. This act was labeled, “unforgivable” and “murderous” by President Park Geun-hye.
According to the Korea Herald, the captain is likely to face a life sentence in prison. The chief engineer on board attempted suicide on Monday, April 21, but is reportedly in stable condition and will soon be summoned for further questioning as well.
Not all crew members are accused of misconduct. Some reportedly did everything they could to save as many lives as possible, such as giving their life jackets to passengers. One woman even refused to leave the capsizing ship before helping students get off. The woman was later found dead. Including the woman, a total of seven crew members lost their lives.
Authorities are now questioning why an inexperienced third mate was guiding the ship at the time of the accident, why so few of the ferry’s life rafts were deployed and why crew members ordered passengers to put on life vests and stay put.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, has continually defended his decision to tell passengers to stay put as the ferry began sinking. He claims his concerns were about the sea’s strong currents and cold water, as well as the lack of rescue ships.
Chonghaejin Marine, the company that operated the ferry, has posted a statement of apology on its website: “We pray for the Sewol victims who lost their precious lives due to the accident,” it read. “We prostrate ourselves before the victims’ families and beg for forgiveness.”
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won apologized and offered to resign on Sunday, as the country remained distraught over the sinking of a ferry that left 302 people dead or missing. President Park Geun-hye accepted his resignation but asked Chung to stay in his post until the government completed its rescue operations, explained presidential spokesman, Min Kyung-wook.
The government has since come under fire, as early investigations revealed loopholes in safety measures and negligent regulatory enforcement investigators said contributed to the sinking of the Sewol.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who was in South Korea for a previously scheduled trip, presented South Korean President Park Geun-hye with an American flag that flew over the White House the day the ferry sank, a gesture of condolence on behalf of the United States.
Editor’s Note: Information from CNN, Time Magazine and the New York Times was used in this report.