(2nd LD) Captain gave wheel to third mate before ferry sank: investigators
(ATTN: UPDATES with possible charges against captain in last 5 paras)
MOKPO, South Korea, April 18 (Yonhap) -- The captain of the ill-fated ferry Sewol gave the wheel to a third mate before the vessel began sinking off South Korea's southwestern coast, investigators said Friday.
Prosecutors and the police have been conducting an investigation into the exact circumstances that led the 6,825-ton ferry to capsize and sink off the southwestern island of Jindo on Wednesday morning.
The sinking is feared to be one of the nation's worst disasters, as 28 of the 475 passengers, mostly high school students, have been confirmed dead, with 268 others still unaccounted for. A total of 179 passengers have been rescued so far.
"We have confirmed that the captain of the Sewol left the wheel to a third mate before the ship began sinking," chief investigator Park Jae-eok said as he announced the interim results of the investigation at the West Regional Headquarters of the Korea Coast Guard in Mokpo, 410 kilometers south of Seoul.
"We are investigating whether the captain left the pilothouse," he added, saying there have been conflicting testimonies about the captain's exact location at the time of the sinking.
The cause of the disaster remains unclear, although reports have speculated that the vessel moved too quickly as it changed course.
"It's true that the area where the accident occurred was the ship's turnpoint," Park said. "We are looking into whether it was a very sharp turn or a normal one."
Investigators have also left open the possibility that there were flaws in the ship's maintenance, he added.
The captain, 69-year-old Lee Jun-seok, was summoned for a third straight day of questioning. Investigators said they plan to seek an arrest warrant against him later in the day.
The skipper could face charges of manslaughter or a violation of the Seafarers Act, according to legal experts.
Manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison without forced labor or 20 million won (US$19,277) in fines.
The Seafarers Act calls for a maximum penalty of five years of prison labor for captains who do not take all possible measures to prevent harm to passengers, cargo and the vessel in an emergency situation.
If the sinking was intentional and investigators are able to prove it, the skipper could face life imprisonment.