Admiralty & Maritime Law

Captain who abandoned sinking ferry is arrested; 64 dead, hundreds missing in South Korean waters

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Updated: The captain of a ferry that sank Wednesday in South Korean waters, killing at least 64 people, has been arrested.

Although specific charges against Lee Jun-seok, 69, haven’t been revealed, reports that he abandoned ship ahead of passengers and crew may have resulted in his arrest, according to CNN and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.).

At least 64 people are dead and nearly 238 are missing. More than 170 were rescued on the day the ferry sank.

“This captain violated the age-old rule and internationally recognized rule that a captain must stay on the vessel,” maritime lawyer Jack Hickey told CNN, explaining that such conduct could lead to dereliction of duty or even attempted murder charges.

“Pretty much every law, rule, regulation and standard throughout the world says that yes, the captain must stay with the ship until all personnel are safely off of the ship, certainly passengers,” Hickey said.

An unidentified official at South Korea’s maritime ministry told the Wall Street Journal that a captain who abandons ship before his passengers could be criminally charged.

The cause of the accident isn’t yet known. News accounts describe an abrupt turn that unbalanced the ship, which began listing at a steep angle. The captain was not at the helm at the time of the accident, but was not required to be.

It appears that initial crew instructions to passengers to stay put may have exacerbated the tragedy, reports the Washington Post (reg. req.).

In a similar case in Italy, the captain of a Carnival Cruise ship who was at the helm when it ran aground in 2012, killing 32 people, was criminally charged after he abandoned ship ahead of passengers and reportedly refused a coast guard order to return to his vessel.

He is currently on trial in Tuscany, charged with mass manslaughter and abandoning ship, the Daily Mail reports. The Telegraph also has a story.

Francesco Schettino denies abandoning ship and says he fell into a lifeboat when the ship tipped. While he accepts responsibility for the accident, he says the failure of a backup generator and flooded compartments contributed to the loss of life amongst some 4,200 passengers and crew aboard the ship.

Related coverage: “Captain Held in Fatal Cruise Liner Stunt Argued with Coast Guard About Leaving Ship, Reports Say”

Popular Mechanics: “In the South Korean Ferry Disaster, Eerie Echoes of Costa Concordia”

Last updated April 21 to reflect the number of passengers dead or missing.

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