JINDO, South Korea -- As a stricken South Korean ferry began to dangerously tilt, a crew member with a walkie-talkie told passengers to stay put. He repeated the announcement several times over the next 50 minutes, even as objects inside the vessel were "rolling all over."
Within minutes of his last announcement, water started to fill up inside the ferry, the crew member, Kang Hye-sung, 31, said Friday. "It was so hectic in the ship that I couldn't even think to make any judgment," he said.
The timeline provided by Mr. Kang, currently hospitalized with lung injuries, coupled with reported accounts from other survivors, suggests crew members' actions may have exacerbated one of South Korea's worst maritime tragedies. Survivors say many passengers who heeded the announcements could still be trapped in the ferry, submerged and upside-down since Wednesday in the Yellow Sea.
At the time when Mr. Kang was delivering his messages, the Sewol already had been notified by a maritime center operator to prepare passengers for the prospect of abandoning ship.
South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the captain of the ferry, Lee Joon-seok, 68, was arrested early today. The investigation into the disaster has focused on the ferry's sharp turn before it started listing, and on whether a quicker evacuation order by the captain could have saved lives. Investigators also were determining whether the captain had abandoned the ship.
The Yonhap agency said two crew members also were arrested.
Three days into the search-and-rescue operation complicated by rough currents, teams of divers are still having difficulty entering the submerged vessel and have yet to pry their way into any chambers with passengers. As of Friday night, 28 people were confirmed dead, and 268 others were unaccounted for. No survivors have been pulled from the ferry since Wednesday.
Compounding the tragedy, South Korean media reported Friday that one of the initial survivors committed suicide, retreating to a hill and hanging himself not far from a gymnasium where relatives of missing passengers are staying. The man had been a vice principal at Danwon High School, which had 325 students aboard the ferry heading on a four-day school trip. South Korean media, citing police officials, said the vice principal was in agony about the accident and felt guilt about surviving.
South Korea's Joongang Ilbo, a major daily, reported Friday that the ferry's captain was rescued by a coast guard patrol ship at 9:50 a.m. At that point, Mr. Kang was still repeating his announcement about staying put -- some 55 minutes after the vessel issued its distress call, the crew member said separately in an interview.
Mr. Kang added that he did not have any contact with the captain while the ferry was in trouble, and did not personally witness his whereabouts. He said the order to make the announcements came not from the captain, but from another senior crew member who did not escape.
Yet in an accident in which more than three-fifths of the passengers are dead or missing, 20 of 29 crew members are still alive, the Joongang Ilbo daily said.
The Yonhap news agency speculated that Mr. Lee, the captain, could be in violation of the Seafarers' Act, which calls for captains to take all necessary measures to prevent harm to passengers in an emergency.
The cause of the accident is unclear, but investigators said at a briefing that they are looking into a sharp turn the boat made shortly before it started to list. That turn could have caused cargo to shift position. The ferry at the time was being steered by the third mate, not the captain, investigators said. Though it is not unusual for a third mate to handle a boat, the Sewol ferry at the time was navigating through a narrow channel of islands where cautious maneuvering is required.
According to the Associated Press, crew members on the Sewol knew they were in trouble at 8:55 a.m., when one of them radioed a maritime services center in Jeju, the ferry's destination. "Our ship is in danger. It's listing right now," the unspecified Sewol crew member said, according to a transcript obtained by the AP. Five minutes later, the Jeju operator asked if lives had been lost or were in danger. "It's impossible to check right now," the Sewol said. "The body of the ship has tilted, and it's impossible to move."
"Yes, OK," the operator responded. "Please wear life jackets and prepare, as the people might have to abandon ship."
"It's hard for people to move," the crew member replied.
Cha Sang-hoon, head of Korea Hospital in Ansan, where most of the rescued students are being treated, said Friday at a briefing that most of the patients show high levels of stress, depression and anxiety. They need weeks or months of therapy, he said.
The ferry with 475 aboard was heading from the port city of Incheon to the island of Jeju, a popular tourist attraction, when it ran into trouble about three hours from its destination, near the southwestern corner of the Korean Peninsula.
Since the boat capsized shortly before noon Wednesday, scores of emergency workers have faced a series of obstacles in an operation that has sparked fury from missing passengers' relatives. Rescue teams used high-pressure hoses Friday to pump oxygen into the vessel, hoping to help any survivors breathe.