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Captain not at helm of Korean ferry

Friday 18 Apr 2014 4:42p.m.

Captain not at helm of Korean ferry

The captain was not at the helm of the South Korean ferry that capsized two days ago, investigators say, as anger spread over stalled rescue efforts for hundreds of missing passengers trapped by the submerged vessel.

More than 48 hours after the 6825-tonne Sewol suddenly listed and then sank, more than 500 exhausted divers - battling powerful currents in almost zero visibility - have yet to obtain any access to the ferry's interior.

The confirmed death toll rose overnight to 25, but the focus of concern remained the 271 people still unaccounted for - hundreds of them children on a high school outing to the southern resort island of Jeju.

The newly recovered bodies were floating in the water, coastguard officials said, as the dive teams worked in shifts to find a way inside the submerged vessel in the increasingly slim hope of finding survivors trapped in air pockets.

Of the 452 people on board the Sewol when it capsized on Wednesday morning, 179 were rescued, but no new survivors have been found since Wednesday.

Three giant, floating cranes had arrived at the disaster site, but coastguard officials said they could not begin lifting the multi-storey ferry until they were sure there were no survivors inside.

Among the relatives of the missing, especially parents of the 352 students who were on board, there was growing resentment over what they see as the inadequacy of the rescue response.

In an appeal broadcast live on television Friday morning, a self-appointed spokesman for the relatives accused the authorities of indifference and deception.

"The government lied yesterday," he said, speaking at a podium in a gymnasium on Jindo island where hundreds of blanket-wrapped relatives have been sleeping on the floor since the tragedy unfolded.

Disputing the official figures of hundreds of divers, vessels and aircraft being deployed, he said he and other relatives had visited the rescue site and seen only a dozen ships and helicopters.

The initial public backlash has centred on the captain, Lee Joon-seok, and his 28 crew, most of whom survived the disaster.

State prosecutors said preliminary investigations showed the third officer was at the helm of the ferry.

"The captain was not in command when the accident took place," prosecutor Park Jae-eok said.

The captain was "in the back" he added, without elaborating.

The captain apologised to the victims and their relatives on Thursday, but offered no clear explanation for what caused the Sewol to capsize.

"I feel really sorry for the passengers, victims and families," Lee said. "I feel ashamed."

Tracking data from the Maritime Ministry showed that the ferry made a sharp turn just before sending its first distress signal.

Some experts believe such a tight turn could have dislodged the heavy cargo manifest - including more than 150 vehicles - and destabilised the vessel, causing it to list heavily and then capsize.

Furious relatives believe many more people would have escaped if they had reached evacuation points before the ship listed sharply and water started flooding in.