SEOUL (USATODAY.com) - As bad weather hampered rescue efforts Friday around the ferry sunk in waters off South Korea's southwest coast, a joint police and prosecution team said the captain had left a third mate at the helm before the ferry began sinking Wednesday morning.
More bodies were found floating in the rescue site overnight, pushing the death toll to 26 as of 11:30 a.m. local time Friday, reported the Yonhap news agency. Of the 475 passengers, 179 have been rescued, but 270 others, mostly high-school students on a school trip, remain missing.
"The captain had a third mate be in charge of steering the vessel at the time of the accident," said Park Jae-uk, chief investigator of the joint team, according to Yonhap. "Though surviving crews have different testimonies about the situation, we've been investigating the captain as he was suspected to leave the steering room for an unknown reason," said Park.
Police and prosecutors are also investigating claims that Lee Jun-seok, the Sewol's 69-year-old captain, was among the first to leave his vessel, in violation of seafarers' law, said Yonhap, even as passengers were repeatedly told to remain inside. Lee made a brief apology Thursday to the passengers and their families, as he was being questioned by coast guard officers.
Investigators are focusing on whether the boat, which was running late due to earlier fog, changed course too sharply, shaking cargo and cars loose and thereby shifting the boat off balance, reported South Korean media including the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.
Anguished parents, who have spent two nights gathered at a port on Jindo, the island closest to the ship, continued to accuse the government Friday of not doing enough to rescue their children. The government lied by exaggerating the number of rescuers, the families said in a statement read out by their representative at a Jindo gymnasium.
"There is no one explaining to us how the rescue operations are proceeding or directing us on what we should do. At this moment, our children would be screaming for help inside the ship," said the statement, reported the Korea Herald newspaper.
"Although our children were dying, there were no rescue efforts. They said they would do it later, but they made excuses, arguing tidal currents were too strong, and that their own safety would be threatened," the families said. "Citizens, this is the truth, the reality of the Republic of Korea. Please help save our children!"
Three massive cranes arrived Friday but it was unclear when they would be used to raise the vessel. Some divers managed to enter the ship Friday, where murky water leaves almost zero visibility, and rescuers have begun injecting oxygen inside the ship to have it floated and help potential survivors, said officials, according to Yonhap.
Prosecutors and police raided the boat's operator and owner Friday, reported the Korea Herald. About 10 officials from the joint investigation team took computer files and documents from the office of Cheonghaejin Marine Co. in Incheon, west of Seoul. The Sewol ferry, built in Japan in 1994, had extra decks fitted last year to accommodate more passengers, but passed recent safety inspections.