Vice principal commits suicide after surviving South Korean ferry disaster
Youkyung Lee and Foster Klug
MOKPO, SOUTH KOREA // A South Korean vice principal overcome by guilt for being rescued from the ferry that sank with hundreds of his students on board killed himself yesterday.
His suicide came as search teams struggled to find some 270 people still missing and police asked a court to issue arrest warrants for the captain and two other crew members.
Police said Kang Min-kyu, 52, was found hanging from a pine tree on Jindo, an island near the sunken ship where survivors have been housed. He was the leader of a group of 325 students travelling on the ship on a school excursion and said in a suicide note that he felt guilty for being alive while more than 200 of his students were missing.
Besides the teacher, at least 28 people are now confirmed dead from the ferry, the Sewol, which sank on Wednesday. Officials said there were 179 survivors and about 270 people remain missing, many of them high school students.
With the chances of survival becoming slimmer by the hour, it was shaping up to be one of South Korea’s worst disasters, made all the more heartbreaking by the likely loss of so many young people, aged 16 or 17.
The ship had left the north-western port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 475 people aboard. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore at 9am. Soon, only its dark blue keel jutted out over the surface.
By late Friday, even that had disappeared, and rescuers floated two giant beige buoys to mark the area. Navy divers attached underwater air bags to the 6,852-tonne ferry to prevent it from sinking further.
Divers began pumping air into the ship in an attempt to sustain any survivors.
On Jindo’s shore, angry and bewildered relatives watched the rescue attempts. Some held a Buddhist prayer ritual, crying and praying for their relatives’ safe return.
“I want to jump into the water with them,” said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of a missing student, Park Ye-ji. “My loved one is under the water and it’s raining. Anger is not enough.”
The vice principal said in his suicide note that he wanted to take responsibility for what happened because he had led the trip. He asked that his body be cremated and the ashes scattered at the accident site.
South Korean officials offered some information about what may have led to the sinking. They said the accident happened at a point where the ferry had to make a turn.
The prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn that was so sharp that it caused the ship to list.
Yonhap news agency reported that the third mate was 26 with one year’s experience steering ships and five months on the Sewol.
The ship made the sharp turn between 8.48am and 8.49am, but it is not known whether that was done voluntarily or because of some external factor.
Another angle being probed is the role of the captain, Lee Joon-seek, 68. Prosecutors said Mr Lee and two crew members escaped the ship, failed to protect passengers and led them to their deaths.
Yang Jung-jin, a senior prosecutor, said the captain was not present on the bridge as required when the ship was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together.
Of the 29 crew members, 20, including the captain, survived. Officials were investigating whether Mr Lee got on one of the first rescue boats.
The captain has not spoken publicly about his decision making, and officials continue to interview him and the crew. Mr Lee made a brief, videotaped appearance. “I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” he said. “I don’t know what to say.”
On Friday, strong currents and rain made rescue attempts difficult. Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the sunken vessel, where most of the missing passengers are thought to be trapped.
* Associated Press