With seven members of the crew now in custody, the court system in South Korea will investigate the tragic deaths of high school students and other victims who were aboard a passenger ferry that recently sunk off of the Korean coast.
First, Captain Lee Joon-seok and two other members of the crew were arrested on negligence charges. It was followed on Monday with the arrests of two first mates, one second mate and a chief engineer. They were charged with negligence of duty and violation of rescue acts, Zee News reported. There are allegations that the captain’s actions violated South Korean maritime law.
“We are trying to find out if there is additional negligence,” Prosecutor Yang Joong-jin said during a news conference in Mokpo, news reports said.
Prosecutors could hold those taken into custody for questioning for up to 30 days, according to Korean news reports.
The ferry, called the Sewol, carried 476 passengers and crew, with 339 of those on board being either children or their teachers from Danwon High School, located near Seoul. Many were still missing as of Tuesday.
The captain and other members of the crew fled the ferry, and allegedly commandeered rescue boats before the young passengers made their way to safety.
"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 South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
“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 was quoted by The Washington Post. “But he then abandoned them and escaped first. This is unthinkable legally and morally.”
The government investigation will look at whether the crew was aware of safety measures and if inspections had taken place, The Post reported.
The vice-principal of the high school, who survived the accident, later hanged himself. Parents and other relatives of the ferry passengers were frantic as they awaited news of their loved ones. Some had the awful task of identifying children.
The ferry was operated by Chonghaejin Marine Co., which operates five ships. The sinking is the second accident for Chonghaejin Marine in less than a month’s time, according to The Wall Street Journal. A few weeks ago, the company’s small ferry collided with a fishing boat in the Yellow Sea, The Journal reported. Earlier, the company had other accidents at sea, records obtained by Korean media showed.
In addition, police and prosecutors raided the offices of Chonghaejin Marine in recent days. They were looking for “any evidence related to the incident,” according to the Korean Joongang Daily. The search turned up 10 computer files and documents related to the Sewol ferry. Many of the company’s executives are now being forbidden to travel, news reports add.
“Employees of Chonghaejin Marine Company committed a grave sin. I am truly sorry for the bereaved families,” Kim Han-sik, president of Chonghaejin, was quoted by the news media. The Joongang Daily said his apology referred to the “failure to comply with safety regulations.”
The two company owners are reportedly the sons of Yoo Byeong-eon, former CEO of the bankrupt Semo ferry cruise company, which used to operate boats on the Han River in Seoul, the newspaper said.
“Yoo Byeong-eon was an evangelical pastor in Korea and a member of a religious cult, making him a suspect in the cult’s 1987 mass suicide-murder,” the newspaper added. “Yoo was investigated by the authority as a possible head figure of the pseudo-Christian cult, and in 1992 he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on fraud charges related to the mass murder-suicide incident.”
As far as its financial health, Chonghaejin saw in 2009 $1.9 million in operating profit.
“But it has been suffering from poor performance in recent years,” The Joongang Daily reported. For instance, Chonghaejin Marine Co reported an operating loss of 785 million won in 2013, EWN reported. That is about $756,334.
Chonghaejin is owned by Chonhaiji, The Joongang Daily reported. Chonhaiji is owned by I-ONE-I Holdings. The largest shareholders of I-ONE-I Holdings are Yoo Dae-kyun, the eldest son of Yoo Byeong-eon, and Yoo Hyuk-ki, his second son, who together hold 19.44 percent of company shares.
Meanwhile, there have been a limited number of news reports that the Sewol ferry victims and their relatives “are now expected to face a hard and complicated battle on damage compensation.”
“Although the passengers, both the survivors and those who died in the accident, are all covered by a number of insurances, the actual compensation process is likely to be long and painful,” according to a report from Inside Korea.
“In addition to this insurance-based compensation, victims may choose to file individual or class action suits against the shipping company for failing to put in place the necessary security measures, the shipping crew for abandoning the ship or the government for neglecting its supervisory duty,” the newspaper added.
Cheonghaejin Marine had insurance from the Korea Shipping Association, with death insurance of 350 million won ($337,089) per person. Danwon High School had traveler’s insurance with Dongbu Fire & Marine Insurance for the students, with a compensation limit in place.
“We will make sure that rapid and adequate (insurance) compensation is made to all victims and their families,” the Financial Services Commission and the Financial Supervisory Service said in a statement.
Passengers or their relatives on cruise ships, globally, have sued cruise lines for accidents or other incidents in recent years – such as with Costa.
Meanwhile, several attorneys and law professors who have ties to South Korea declined to comment on the recent ferry tragedy when reached by InsideCounsel.
One statement was released by Jamie Barnett, president of the International Cruise Victims association.
“The tragic Korean Ferry incident should be seen as a warning for all ship owners, for potential passengers and crew as well,” Barnett said. “A cautionary tale of cataclysmic portions warning us all of the worst that can happen…screaming to the world that there is more to be done, more oversight and stricter regulations are called for. What will it ultimately take to bring that about? My heart indeed goes out to these families.”