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Divers see bodies in sunken ferry
02:08 - Source: CNN

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NEW: The coast guard says 40 dives are planned for Saturday

Divers have found three bodies on the third deck, the coast guard says

Capt. Lee Joon Seok has been charged in connection with the ferry's sinking

Lee says he left the helm briefly "to tend to something'' in his cabin

Jindo, South Korea CNN  — 

A South Korean captain, standing in handcuffs before reporters, defended his order to delay the evacuation of his sinking ferry, CNN affiliate YTN reported early Saturday.

The news of Lee Joon Seok’s arrest in connection with the sinking that left at least 29 people dead and more than 270 missing came as divers made their way to the third deck inside the wreckage where they found three bodies, according to the South Korean coast guard.

The divers weren’t able to recover the three bodies from a compartment, the coast guard said. Another 40 dives are planned for Saturday in an attempt to get inside the ferry, the coast guards’ Koh Myung Seok told reporters.

Lee was charged with abandoning his boat, negligence, causing bodily injury, not seeking rescue from other ships and violating “seamen’s law,” state media reported.

The charges against Lee appear to shed some light on what authorities have focused on in their efforts to find out what happened to the ferry making its way Wednesday from Incheon to the resort island of Jeju. It sank in frigid waters 20 kilometers (roughly 12 miles) off the coast of South Korea’s southern peninsula.

“Mr. Lee is charged with causing the Sewol ship to sink by failing to slow down while sailing the narrow route and making (a) turn excessively,” prosecutor Lee Bong-chang told the semi-official Yonhap news agency.

“Lee is also charged with failing to do the right thing to guide the passengers to escape and thereby leading to their death or injury.”

If convicted, he faces from five years to life in prison.

Lee wasn’t at the helm of the Sewol when it started to sink; a third mate was at the helm, a prosecutor said.

Where was the captain?

“It is not clear where he was when the accident occurred, although it is clear that he was not in the steering room before the actual accident happened,” state prosecutor Jae-Eok Park said.

A crew member, described as the third mate and identified only as Park, appeared in handcuffs with Lee.

It was unclear if he was one of two other crew members who authorities have said also faced arrest in connection with the sinking.

A spokesman for the joint prosecutor and police investigators declined to provide further details.

Lee answered questions as he left a court hearing Saturday.

“The tidal current was strong and water temperature was cold, and there was no rescue boat,” he told reporters, according to CNN affiliate YTN. “So I had everyone stand by and wait for the rescue boat to arrive.”

He said he plotted the ship’s course, and then went to his cabin briefly “to tend to something.” It was then, he said, the accident happened.

It was then, he said, the accident happened.

The third mate, who was at the helm of the ship when Lee left, said she did not make a sharp turn, but “the steering turned much more than usual.”

The captain was one of at least 174 people rescued soon after the Sewol began to sink, violating an “internationally recognized rule that a captain must stay on the vessel,” maritime law attorney Jack Hickey said.

“Pretty much every law, rule, regulation and standard throughout the world says that yes, the captain must stay with the ship until all personnel are safely off of the ship, certainly passengers.”

More ships, aircraft

Hopes of finding the missing alive dimmed further when the entire boat became submerged Friday. Until then, part of the ship’s blue-and-white hull was still poking out of the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea.

The coast guard said workers continued to pump air into the hull of the submerged ship, but could not stop its descent. The ferry boat sank 10 meters (33 feet) farther below the surface of the Yellow Sea overnight, Maritime Police told CNN Saturday.

Still, divers breached the hull of the sunken ferry, and two managed to enter the second deck – the cargo deck, the South Korean coast guard said. But rough waters forced them out. They didn’t find any bodies in their brief search.

The effort was still underway in earnest Saturday morning featuring helicopters circling above the water and about 120 vessels – from large warships to fishing ships to dinghies – in the water, in addition to the divers under it.

Four cranes also sit about 500 yards from the focal point, ready to lift the ferry if and when the order comes in.

That hasn’t happened yet, though, with authorities not yet giving up on finding survivors.

Compounding the tragedy, one of those rescued – a high school vice principal who was on board the ferry along with more than 300 students – was found hanging from a tree, police said.

Kang Min Kyu, 52, vice principal of Ansan Danwon High School, was among the first survivors to be rescued.

Police said he apparently hanged himself, using a belt, from a tree near a gymnasium in Jindo, where distraught relatives of missing passengers have been camping.

Police confirmed a suicide note was found, but declined to release its contents.

Anger and disgust

South Korean ferry rescue operation