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Mate steering doomed ferry navigating waters for first time, prosecutor says

The third mate steering a South Korean ferry carrying 475 passengers that sank on Wednesday, killing 32 and leaving 270 missing, was navigating those waters for the first time when the accident occurred, a prosecutor said Saturday.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin told reporters that the 25-year-old mate was steering the ship as it passed through an area with lots of islands clustered close together and fast currents. The mate has six months of experience and hadn't steered before because another mate usually handles those duties.

The captain of the ferry that sank off South Korea leaving more than 300 missing or dead, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. Lee Joon-seok, 68, along with two crew members were taken into custody, including the rookie third mate.

The number of confirmed dead rose to 32 when three bodies were found in the murky water near the ferry, said coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in. Divers know at least some bodies remain inside the 6,852-ton vessel, but they have been unable to get inside due to strong currents, rain and an inability to break the windows. Hundreds of civilian, government and military divers were involved in the search effort Saturday. 

South Korean police officers have been standing guard in order to prevent suicides of relatives of the missing passengers. The relatives are trying to commit suicide out of desperation saying that they will swim to the ship wreck site and find their missing family members by themselves 

"I am sorry to the people of South Korea for causing a disturbance and I bow my head in apology to the families of the victims," Lee told reporters Saturday morning as he left the Mokpo Branch of Gwangju District Court to be jailed. But he defended his much-criticized decision to wait about 30 minutes before ordering an evacuation.

"At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties," Lee said. "The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time."

The Sewol sank off South Korea's southern coast Wednesday with 476 people aboard, most of them students on holiday from a single high school. By the time the evacuation order was issued, the ship was listing at too steep an angle for many people to escape the tight hallways and stairs inside. Several survivors told The Associated Press that they never heard any evacuation order.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin told reporters that the third mate was steering the ship Wednesday morning as it passed through an area with lots of islands clustered close together and fast currents. According to investigators, the accident came at a point where the ship had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.

Helmsman Park Kyung-nam identified the third mate as Park Han-kyul. The helmsman who was arrested, 55-year-old Cho Joon-ki, spoke to reporters outside court and accepted some responsibility.

"There was a mistake on my part as well, but the steering had been turned much more than usual," Cho said.

Lee has four decades of experience at sea. He had been captaining ferries for 10 years by the time he was interviewed by the Jeju Today website in 2004, and said he had sailed on ocean freighters for 20 years before that.

But he was not the Sewol's main captain, and worked on the ship about 10 days a month, helmsman Oh Yong-seok said.

Lee was not on the bridge when the ship began to list. "I gave instructions on the route, then briefly went to the bedroom when it happened," he told reporters.

According to the court, Lee faces five charges, including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, and the two other crew members each face three related charges.

Lee was required by law to be on the bridge helping his crew when the ferry passed through tough-to-navigate areas, said Yang, the senior prosecutor.

Yang said Lee also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, saying, "The captain escaped before the passengers." Video aired by Yonhap news agency showed Lee among the first people to reach the shore by rescue boat.

Yang said the two crew members arrested failed to reduce speed near the islands and failed to carry out necessary measures to save lives.

It's not clear why the two crew members made the sharp turn, Yang said. He said prosecutors would continue to look into whether something other than the turn could have made the ferry sink, but he added that there were no strong waves that could have knocked down the ferry at the time.

Prosecutors will have 10 days to decide whether to indict the captain and crew, but can request a 10-day extension from the court.

Angry relatives of missing passengers expressed outrage at officials who were holding a briefing on the disaster in a gymnasium on Jindo island where hundreds of family members are waiting for word about their loved ones. A few dozen relatives surged toward the stage, hurling rapid-fire questions at the officials. One man tried to choke a coast guard lieutenant and punch a maritime policeman, but missed.

"I know this has been a very difficult situation," said Lee Jong-eui, a businessman whose 17-year-old nephew, Nam Hyun-chul, is among the missing. "But aren't people supposed to have faith in the government? The government should have hurried up and have done something, but they just wasted four days, which led to this point. I think this is more like a man-made disaster."

The briefing began with a family member presenting video footage shot by a diver using a head-mounted camera Friday night. The only sounds that could be heard in the gym were the diver's breathing as he gripped a rope with gloved hands and used a flashlight to illuminate the murky water. The diver could be seen pulling the rope as he advanced toward the sunken ship. Dust and sediment washed around in various directions, testifying to the rapid changes in sea current. Glimpses of the ferry could be seen -- metal railings and a small window.

The Sewol had left the northwestern port of Incheon on Tuesday on an overnight journey to the holiday island of Jeju in the south with 323 students from Danwon High School in Ansan among its passengers. It capsized within hours of the crew making a distress call to the shore a little before 9 a.m. Wednesday.

A transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange shows that an official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center recommended evacuation just five minutes after the Sewol's distress call. But helmsman Oh told the AP that it took 30 minutes for the captain to give the evacuation order as the boat listed.

With only 174 known survivors and the chances of survival increasingly slim, it is 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 country's last major ferry disaster was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.

The last bit of the ferry that had been above water -- the dark blue keel -- disappeared below the surface Friday night. Navy divers attached underwater air bags to the ferry to prevent it from sinking deeper, the Defense Ministry said.

Three vessels with cranes arrived at the accident site to prepare to salvage the ferry, but they will not hoist the ship before getting approval from family members of those still believed inside because the lifting could endanger any survivors, said a coast guard officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

Coast guard official Ko Myung-seok said 176 ships and 28 planes were mobilized to search the area around the sunken ship Saturday, and that more than 650 divers were trying to search the interior of the ship. The coast guard also said a thin layer of oil was visible near the area where the ferry sank; about two dozen vessels were summoned to contain the spill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.