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(2nd LD) Investigators raid situation room of Coast Guard over sunken ferry

2014/04/28 16:54

MOKPO/INCHEON, South Korea, April 28 (Yonhap) -- A joint investigation team raided the situation room of the local Coast Guard on Monday to confiscate documents and recordings from the day of the ferry Sewol's sinking to look into whether officials properly handled the tragic incident at the initial stage.

The team, composed of police and prosecutors, made the rare move to confiscate the maritime police's office in Mokpo, a southwestern port city located near waters where the 6,825-ton ship sank on April 16. The office received the first distress call from a teenager on board.

The 18-year-old boy, who was on a school trip with more than 300 other students and teachers, dialed the 119 emergency number, which put him through to the Coast Guard, and asked for help in a shaking voice.

According to a transcript of the recording, a Coast Guard official asked the student to provide the latitude and longitude of his location, sparking criticism that authorities wasted crucial minutes before starting a rescue operation.

The investigation team said it will analyze the work journals and transcripts of the recording to see whether the authorities properly fulfilled their duties.

The Coast Guard is under criticism for saving the ferry's captain and 20 other crew members, who issued the late evacuation order and abandoned the ship ahead of others.

Twelve days after the ship's sinking, the Coast Guard released a video clip showing the 69-year-old captain, Lee Joon-seok, being rescued by officials who first arrived at the ship when it was severely listing.

One of the rescue workers took the 10-minute-long video with his cell phone while rescuing Lee, who was hastily escaping from the bridge of the tilting ship without wearing trousers before it eventually capsized and sank in waters with hundreds of passengers still aboard.

The team also summoned the regular captain of the Sewol, who was on vacation on the day of the sinking, on Monday to quiz him about the ship's management and the working system of its crew, officers said.

The 47-year-old captain, only identified by his surname Shin, was called in as a witness to face questioning on why Lee was filling in at the time of the accident, they added.

Lee usually steers the Ohamana, the ferry that plied the same route between Incheon and the southern island of Jeju as the Sewol. The Ohamana has had engine trouble while at sea twice in the past few years. Allegations also have arisen of possible overloading of the Ohamana.

Of the 476 people aboard, 174 of them, including the captain and 20 other crew members, were rescued on the day of sinking, while 188 have been confirmed dead. Prosecutors have arrested 15 crew members who navigated the ill-fated ship on charges of negligence of duty and abandoning passengers.

The latest move follows the team's raid into the vessel traffic service of Jindo Island, the center of the search operation, to investigate emergency response blunders.

Earlier in the day, prosecutors also stormed into affiliate companies of the sunken ferry's operator and the former owner's house to look into allegations that paper companies were used to create slush funds and illegally transfer money abroad.

As fresh allegations surfaced that the former owner of Chonghaejin Marine Co., Yoo Byung-eun, has amassed illegal funds through several paper companies, prosecutors raided four offices of the company's affiliates, including Yoo's house, according to officials.

Prosecutors suspect that two of Yoo's sons have set up at least three companies that only exist on paper, which are believed to have received about 20 billion won (US$19.2 million) for consulting fees from about 30 affiliate companies of Semo Marine Co., the predecessor of Cheonghaejin, and keeping slush funds in overseas accounts.

Yoo's family is also suspected of illegally sending 100 billion won overseas through affiliate companies.

Prosecutors have traced their hidden assets as calls have risen for the owner family to pay damages to the victims and bereaved families, as the search continued to find 114 people who are still missing.

Prosecutors said that they also plan to call in executives of the ferry operator and its affiliates, as well as close aides of the owner family, sometime later this week.

"The investigation team is pushing forward with the investigation using different methods and is mulling over summoning some of the people in charge sometime this week," said an investigator close to the investigation.

Incheon District Prosecutors' Office, west of Seoul, meanwhile, arrested three officials of the Korea Shipping Association, which oversees ferry operators, on charges of destroying evidence ahead of the prosecution raid on the association's office, said prosecutors.

On Wednesday, prosecutors swooped on the head office of the association, a nonprofit organization in charge of inspecting and certifying vessels on behalf of the government, in the southern port city of Busan and another office in Incheon.

The three officials, including the Incheon office head, are under suspicion of destroying internal documents, prosecutors said, without disclosing details of their identity.

"The prosecution will deal sternly with destruction of evidence as the alleged crime is related to the prosecution's determination in the investigation," said an investigator close to the probe.

The association approved the Sewol for operation in February after doing a safety check on more than 200 items, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said they are looking for any evidence of possible wrongdoing in relation to the safety inspection of the Sewol and whether association officials were bribed in exchange for lax inspection.