SEOUL/MOKPO/JINDO, South Korea: The vice principal of a South Korean high school who accompanied hundreds of his pupils on what turned out to be a disastrous ferry trip has committed suicide, police said on Friday, as hopes faded of finding any of the 268 missing passengers alive.
Kang Min-gyu, 52, had been missing since Thursday. He appeared to have hanged himself with his belt from a tree outside a gym in the port city of Jindo where relatives of the people missing on the ship, mostly children from the school, were gathered.
Police said Kang did not leave a suicide note and that they started looking for him after he was reported missing by a fellow-teacher. He was rescued from the ferry after it capsized on Wednesday
Of the 475 passengers and crew on the ferry, 28 people had been officially been declared dead before Kang’s suicide and 179 were rescued. The overwhelming majority of the missing are students from the Danwon High School on the outskirts of Seoul, who were on a holiday trip.
Divers are fighting strong tides and murky waters to get to the sunken ship but the likelihood of finding any of the missing alive is slim.
At the high school in Ansan, an industrial town near Seoul, many friends and family of the missing gathered in sombre silence, with occasional sounds of sobbing breaking the quiet.
Prosecutors say they’ve asked a court to issue an arrest warrant for the captain of the South Korean ferry that sank two days ago, leaving hundreds missing and feared dead.
Prosecutors said Friday that they have also requested arrest warrants for two other crewmembers.
The investigation into the ferry disaster has focused on the sharp turn it took just before it started listing and whether a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives. Investigators are also determining whether the captain abandoned the ship.
“When I first received the call telling me the news, at that time I still had hope,” said Cho Kyung-mi, who was waiting for news of her missing 16 year-old nephew at the school.
“And now it’s all gone.”
In the classrooms of the missing, fellow students have left messages on desks, blackboards and windows, asking for the safe return of their missing friends.
“If I see you again, I’ll tell you I love you, because I haven’t said it to you enough,” reads one message.
Investigations into the sinking, South Korea’s worst maritime accident in 21 years based on possible casualties, have centred 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.
The 69-year old ship captain has also come under scrutiny after witnesses said he was among the first to escape the sinking vessel that was on a 400-km (300-mile) voyage from the port city of Incheon to the Korean holiday island of Jeju.
According to investigators, Captain Lee Joon-seok was not on the bridge at the time the Sewol ferry started to list sharply, with a junior officer at the wheel.
“I’m not sure where the captain was before the accident. However right after the accident, I saw him rushing back into the steering house ahead of me,” said Oh Young-seok, one of the helmsmen on the ship who was off duty and resting at the time.