MOKPO, South Korea - President Park Geun-hye castigated the captain and some crew members of a sunken ferry on Monday, saying their actions in abandoning a vessel with hundreds of passengers still aboard were "tantamount to murder."
Park's comments came in the face of steady criticism about her government's response to the disaster amid a growing sense of fury in South Korea about alleged criminal incompetence aboard the ferry Sewol.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, was arrested Friday along with two other crew members, and prosecutors on Monday said four additional crew members - two first mates, one second mate, and an engineer - have also been detained. All face charges stemming from the quick abandonment of the ship and their failure to first assist passengers in evacuating.
As South Korea mourns and prepares for a long series of funerals, it is also grappling with an emerging criminal case that could sort out some of the responsibility for the disaster. Some South Koreans, though acknowledging the apparent irresponsibility of the crew, said Park's comments on the case were made prematurely and could complicate the already emotional proceedings.
During a meeting with advisers, Park criticized the captain for leaving a 25-year-old third mate - "an entry-level worker" - in charge of navigating the narrow waterway where the ferry ran into trouble, according to a transcript from the presidential office. Park also noted that a maritime operator on shore repeatedly urged the Sewol to evacuate its passengers - something the Sewol crew members said was impossible because the vessel had already tilted drastically.
"Right after the accident, the captain didn't comply with orders for evacuation from [the maritime operator] and told the passengers to stay where they are," Park said. "But he then abandoned them and escaped first. This is unthinkable, legally and morally."
Park also vowed an investigation into whether crew members had proper knowledge of safety measures and whether inspections had been carried out properly. She raised concern about the oversight of the Korea Shipping Association, a safety watchdog that also provides membership status to shipping companies. Park said that set-up had resulted in "a systematic problem."
The 6,825-ton vessel was sailing from Incheon to Jeju when it capsized and sank in the Yellow Sea. The exact cause of the disaster is unknown, but some investigators have speculated that a rapid turn could have knocked shipping containers and other heavy cargo out of place, throwing the boat off balance.
An extensive transcript released Sunday of contact between the ferry and the shore indicated a period of indecision and chaos on board for nearly 45 minutes after the vessel's distress call. If an evacuation order was ever given - the captain says it was; many survivors say they never heard it - it came at a time when the vessel was listing severely and most passengers were unable to move. As of Monday, 80 have been found dead and 222 remain missing.