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Three members of crew on sunken ferry arrested

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Buoys mark the sunken ferry Sewol off South Korea on Friday as cranes wait in the background. Three crew members have been arrested in connection with the sinking. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Buoys mark the sunken ferry Sewol off South Korea on Friday as cranes wait in the background. Three crew members have been arrested in connection with the sinking. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

MOKPO, South Korea – Police arrested the captain and two other crew members of the South Korean ferry that sank two days ago, leaving more than 270 people missing and 29 people dead, the Yonhap news agency reported today.

As the last bit of the sunken ferry’s hull slipped beneath the murky water off southern South Korea on Friday, there was a new victim: a vice principal of the high school whose students were among the passengers was found hanged, an apparent suicide.

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 476 people aboard, including 323 students from Danwon High School in Ansan. It capsized within hours after the crew made a distress call to the shore a little before 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Only its dark blue keel jutted out over the surface. But by Friday night, even that had disappeared, and rescuers set two giant beige buoys to mark the area. Navy divers attached underwater air bags to the 6,852-ton ferry to prevent it from sinking deeper, the Defense Ministry said.

The coast guard said divers began pumping air into the ship to try to sustain any survivors.

Strong currents and rain made it difficult to get inside the ferry. Divers worked in shifts to try to get into the vessel, where most of the passengers were believed to have been trapped when it sank, coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said.

Investigators said the accident came at a point where the ship had to make a turn, and prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate ordered a turn that was so sharp that it caused the vessel to list.

The sharp turn came between 8:48 a.m. and 8:49 a.m., but it’s not known whether it was done voluntarily or because of some external factor, said Nam Jae-heon, a spokesman for the Maritime Ministry.

Another angle being probed is the role of the captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon-seok.

Yonhap said Lee was detained early today, along with two crew members. Lee faces five charges, including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law, Yonhap said.

Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin said Lee was not on the bridge when the ferry was passing through an area with many islands clustered closely together, something he said is required by law so the captain can help a mate make a turn. The captain also abandoned people in need of help and rescue, he said.

“The captain escaped before the passengers,” Yang said.

Two crew members on the bridge of the ferry – a 25-year-old woman and a 55-year-old helmsman – also failed to reduce speed near the islands and conducted a sharp turn, Yang said. They also did not carry out necessary measures to save lives, he said.

Another focus of the investigation is that a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives.

Police said the vice principal who was found hanged from a tree on Jindo, an island near the sunken ship where survivors have been housed, had been rescued from the ferry.

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