South Korean Ferry Captain Arrested, as Relatives Offer DNA Samples to Help Out the Long Search

Early on Saturday morning, the captain of the sunken South Korean ferry was arrested on charges of negligence, along with the third mate and another crew member. Since the ship capsized on Wednesday, the number of passengers confirmed dead has risen to 33, with three more bodies found Saturday by divers searching the wreckage. Meanwhile, the fatal role played by the 69-year-old captain and his crew has become increasingly clear, after it emerged that they abandoned the ship and its hundreds of (mostly teenaged) passengers — 270 of whom are still missing.

Capt. Lee Joon Seok was handcuffed and arrested Saturday, charged with negligence, abandoning his boat, not calling for rescue from other boats, and causing bodily injury. "Mr. Lee is charged with causing the Sewol ship to sink by failing to slow down while sailing the narrow route and making (it) turn excessively," prosecutor Lee Bong-chang said to the Yonhap news agency. "Lee is also charged with failing to do the right thing to guide the passengers to escape and thereby leading to their death or injury."

The ferry was sailing from Incheon to the island of Jeju when it capsized Wednesday and sank within two hours, carrying 475 people, including 236 students from Danwon High School. Captain Seok was one of the first to leave the sinking ship, and was rescued by the South Korean Coast Guard while another crew member he'd put in charge was still telling the ship’s passengers to stay on the ferry. Though he'd previously apologized for his order, he defended his decision Saturday.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"I gave instructions regarding the route, then I briefly went to the bedroom and then [the sinking] happened," he said to the press. "The current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without proper judgement, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties."

"So I had everyone stand by and wait for the rescue boat to arrive," he added.

If convicted, the captain could face anything from five years to a life sentence in jail.

In spite of the fact that 176 ships and 652 divers are currently scouring the ocean, relatives of the nearly 270 missing passengers are in a painful state of limbo as rescue teams battle the harsh conditions to find any possible survivors. On Saturday, family members gave out DNA samples to help identify the bodies of those on board, but the rescue operation is looking like a long process. "According to the experts, the rescue may last one or two months," the head of the Emergency Management Centre told reporters.