A joint investigation team on Friday raided the office of Cheonghaejin Marine Co., the owner and operator of the Sewol ferry that sank Wednesday to probe allegations that the mishap may have been caused by an attempt to change direction too sharply.
The raid kicked off the probe into allegations that the Sewol took an alternative route on its fateful journey from Incheon to Jeju, and whether human error affected the accident, which took lives of at least 25 as of 10 a.m. Friday. Some 271 remain unaccounted for.
Sewol, a 6,825-ton ship carrying 475 people, abruptly turned left on the day of the accident. This is thought to have caused the ferry to capsize.
According to reports, the Coast Guard arrived at a preliminary conclusion that the Sewol ferry turned too quickly to the left, causing it to lose balance, and ultimately to capsize.
Based on the accounts provided by crew members, the investigators suspect that the Sewol sharply changed direction when only a gradual change was required. As the ship lost balance, its steering equipment is thought to have malfunctioned.
According to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, the Sewol took a sharp turn at 8:48 a.m., four minutes before the Coast Guard received the first report that the ship was experiencing problems.
The ministry’s analysis of the ship’s monitoring system also showed that the Sewol then moved about 100 meters to the south. The vessel then drifted for about 70 minutes, moving about 1,600 meters to where it later capsized.
The sudden direction change is suspected to have pushed motor vehicles and cargo aboard the ship to one side, causing the vessel to lose balance. The Sewol was carrying 180 vehicles and over 1,100 tons of cargo.
The accident occurred near the point where ships on the Incheon-Jejudo route usually change direction.
Survivors have told media that the Sewol jolted on two occasions as it tilted at a 90-degree angle and again as it capsized. Fishermen who took part in the early rescue efforts have given supporting accounts.
The Coast Guard summoned the ship’s captain for questioning to determine further details about the situation.
The captain, identified as Lee, was initially questioned as a witness but his status has since been changed to that of a suspect.
The Coast Guard also said that the Sewol deviated from the route recommended by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, giving substance to the speculation that the ship’s captain may have been attempting to make up for lost time. The Sewol’s departure from Incheon, its port of origin, was delayed due to heavy fog.
With new evidence emerging, the authorities now suspect that the loud bang that survivors reported hearing just before the ferry began sinking was made by cargo that had come loose. Accounts from survivors had led to speculation that the Sewol may have hit a reef when it sent out an emergency signal at 8:52 a.m. Wednesday.