By Jungmin Jang and Ju-min Park
MOKPO/JINDO, South Korea (Reuters) – 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 somber silence, with occasional sounds of sobbing breaking the quiet.
“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 centered 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.
“He calmly asked by how much the ship was tilted, and tried to re-balance the ship,” said Oh who was speaking from a hospital bed in the city of Mokpo on Friday, where those injured in the incident have been taken.
Handing over the helm is normal practice on the voyage from Incheon to Jeju that usually takes 13.5 hours, according to local shipping crew.
Divers gained access to the cargo deck of the ferry on Friday, although that was not close to the passenger quarters, according to a coastguard official.
Other coastguard officials said that divers made several attempts to make it to the passenger areas but failed.
“We cannot even see the ship’s white color. Our people are just touching the hull with their hands,” Kim Chun-il, a diver from Undine Marine Industries, told relatives of the missing on Friday.
The ferry went down in calm conditions and was following a frequently travelled route in familiar waters. Although relatively close to shore, the area was free of rocks and reefs.
Lee has not commented on when he left the ship, although he has apologized for the loss of life.
He was described as an industry “veteran” by the officials from Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, the ship owner, and others who had met him described him as an “expert” who knew the waters he sailed well.
“I don’t know why he abandoned the ship like that,” said Ju Hi-chun, a maritime author interviewed the captain in 2006 as one of the experts on the sailing route to Jeju island.
But he added: “Koreans don’t have the view that they have to stay with their ship until the end. It is a different culture from the West.”
Some media reports have said the vessel turned sharply, causing cargo to shift and the ship to list before capsizing.
Marine investigators and the coastguard have said it was too early to pinpoint a cause for the accident and declined to comment on the possibility of the cargo shifting.
The record of the ferry owner was also under investigation and documents were removed from its headquarters in Incheon.
Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd is an unlisted company that operates five ships. It reported an operating loss of 785 million won ($756,000) last year.
According to data from South Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service, a government body, Chonghaejin is “indirectly” owned by two sons of the owner of a former shipping company called Semo Marine which went bankrupt in 1997.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Miyoung Kim, James Pearson, Sohee Kim and Cho Meeyoung; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)