JINDO, South Korea: The arrested captain of the South Korean ferry that capsized three days ago with 476 people on board defended his decision to delay its evacuation, as divers on Saturday finally accessed the submerged vessel and spotted bodies inside.
Investigators arrested Lee Joon-Seok and two of his crew early in the morning. All three have been criticized for abandoning hundreds of passengers trapped in the ferry, as they made their own escape.
Lee was charged with negligence and failing to secure the safety of passengers in violation of maritime law.
Twenty-nine people have been confirmed dead in the disaster, but 273 are still missing — most of them children on a high school holiday trip.
As the arrests were being made, dive teams who had spent two days vainly battling powerful currents and near zero visibility, finally penetrated the passenger decks of the 6,825-ton Sewol.
“Civilian divers spotted three bodies through a window,” a senior coastguard officer said.
“They attempted to get in and retrieve them by cracking the window, but it was too difficult,” he said in a briefing to relatives of the missing.
Even with a powerful underwater flashlight, visibility was measured in inches as the diver was seen groping his way blindly along the side of the ship with the help of a pre-attached rope.
Lee was arraigned along with the two officers in charge of the bridge at the time.
Dressed in dark raincoats with their hoods pulled up, the three kept their heads bowed as they were paraded before TV cameras in a police station.
Questioned as to why passengers had been ordered not to move for more than 40 minutes after the ship first foundered, Lee said it was a safety measure.
“At the time a rescue ship had not arrived. There were also no fishing boats around for rescues, or other ships to help,” he said.
“The currents were very strong and the water was cold at that time in the area.
“I thought that passengers would be swept far away and fall into trouble if they evacuated thoughtlessly,” he added.
Experts have suggested many more people might have escaped if they had moved to reach evacuation points before the ship listed sharply and water started flooding in.
Pope Francis on Saturday voiced condolences for the ferry victims.
“Please join me in praying for the victims of the ferry disaster in Korea and their families,” Francis said in a tweet published on his Twitter account @pontifex.
Francis is due to make a five-day visit in August to South Korea, which has more than five million Catholics—around 10 percent of the population.