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Vice-principal commits suicide as ferry disaster search continues

Ju-min Park, Jungmin Jang

The vice-principal of a high school whose pupils were on a capsized South Korean ferry has committed suicide as hopes fade of finding survivors.

The death toll from the ferry accident in South Korea increased to 25 on Friday morning. (AFP)

The vice-principal of a high school whose pupils died or are missing in a South Korean ferry accident committed suicide by hanging himself outside a large gym where families of the victims were staying on Friday.

Police said that Kang Min-gyu (52) had been missing since Thursday and appeared to have hanged himself with his belt from a tree outside the gym.

Out of 475 passengers and crew on the ship, about 340 were students and teachers from the Danwon High School in Ansan, an industrial town near Seoul, who were on an outing to the resort island of Jeju. They account for about 250 of those missing.

The ferry sank off South Korea's southern coast on Wednesday, killing at least 25 people. So far, 179 people have been listed as safe while 271 remain unaccounted for. On Friday, authorities launched an unmanned submarine to inspect the vessel for more survivors. Rescue teams have been unable to get inside the ferry due to strong tides and murky waters. 

Theories about the cause of the accident swirled and an official investigation was due to resume with questioning the captain. Coast guard officials said the investigation was focused on possible crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and structural defects of the vessel, although the ship appears to have passed all of its safety and insurance checks.

Blaming the captain
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, faces criminal investigation, which is standard procedure in South Korea. Relatives of those who died have accused him and some of his crew of being among the first to leave the vessel.

Both 69-year-old Lee and the company that owns the ship have apologised for the loss of life, although neither has admitted responsibility.

Relatives were in mourning overnight in a hospital in the city of Mokpo, close to the port city of Jindo, which is acting as a rescue centre. Some of them spoke bitterly of the captain.

"How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?" said Ham Young-ho, grandfather of 17-year-old Lee Da-woon, one of the dead.

Lee has not made any public statement on whether or why he may have left the vessel before many of the passengers.

Witness accounts say crew members instructed some passengers to remain where they were as the ship listed sharply and then capsized in about two hours, 25km southwest of Jindo, a large South Korean island connected to the mainland.

Seeking answers 
South Korean media have reported that the ship may have turned before listing sharply to port but investigators have declined to comment.

While Lee and some of the crew members were criticised for their role in the sinking, he was described as a "veteran" by Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, the owner of the vessel.

"He is a veteran captain who has run such passenger ferry between Incheon and Jeju for 20 years," said Song Ki-chae, who heads one of Chunghaejin's branch offices.

Song paid tribute to Park Ji-young, one of the crew members who died after escorting children to safety and helping them don life jackets.

Of the 20 crew, half are unaccounted for.

Officials will investigate Chunghaejin, the unlisted operator, which owns four other vessels, and which reported an operating loss of $756 000 last year.

Earlier efforts to locate survivors inside the hull, which is still partly above water, did not succeed. Data shows that the speed of the underwater current varies throughout the day and, at its strongest, hit 10km/h, making diving impossible.

Although the water at the site is relatively shallow at under 50 metres, it is still dangerous for the 150 or so divers, experts said. Time was running out to find any survivors trapped inside, they said.

"The chances of finding people in there [alive] are not zero," said David Jardine-Smith, secretary of the International Maritime Rescue Federation. However, he said conditions were extremely difficult.

"There is a lot of water current and silt in the water, which means visibility is very poor and the divers are basically feeling their way around." – Reuters

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