Maritime inspectors focus of investigation

South Korea seeks cause of ferry sinking

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JINDO, South Korea -- Prosecutors on Friday barred eight current and former officials from a maritime inspection agency from leaving South Korea, as the investigation of last week's ferry sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing shifted to agencies responsible for certifying ships as safe to travel.

The Sewol, a 6,825-ton ferry, capsized and sank April 16 on its way from Incheon, a port west of Seoul, to the resort island of Jeju off South Korea's southern coast. As of Friday, 183 of the 476 people aboard had been confirmed dead, and 119 remained missing. Two-thirds of the passengers were second-year students from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul.

More sleeping cabins were added to the Sewol's upper decks before the ferry began plying the Incheon-to-Jeju route in early 2013. Prosecutors said Thursday that the design change, which made the vessel more top-heavy, was one reason the Sewol had suddenly listed and overturned.

The Korea Register of Shipping had found the Sewol fit to sail, despite the design change. On Thursday, prosecutors raided the offices of the agency and another industry watchdog, the Korea Shipping Association. They also raided the home of Yoo Byung-un, head of the family that owns Chonghaejin Marine, the company that operated the ferry.

Song In-taek, a senior prosecutor, said Thursday that his team was looking into "malpractice in the entire shipping industry." Barring the Korea Register of Shipping officials from leaving the country was the first indication that the investigators may have found evidence of wrongdoing among the 80 boxes of documents confiscated in the raids.

Prosecutors also seized another ferry owned by Chonghaejin Marine that had a design similar to the Sewol's, to collect possible evidence of safety violations. On Friday, investigators said the life rafts in the other ferry did not function properly. Members of the Sewol's crew had told investigators that they tried to deploy its life rafts but could not reach them because the ship was listing too much.

Prosecutors Thursday cited other causes for the Sewol's sinking besides the design change. They said a sharper-than-recommended turn had been made while the ferry was passing through a strong current, and that improper securing of vehicles, shipping containers and other cargo had allowed the items to come loose and slide to the side, leaving the ship unable to recover its balance.

Ahn Sang-don, a senior prosecutor in charge of the investigation, said investigators were still looking for other potential causes, such as whether the ferry was overloaded when it set sail from Incheon. The ship was carrying cargo from dozens of companies, and investigators were following up with them to determine the weight and composition of the load.

Grief-stricken relatives of the dead and missing have blamed the ship's captain and crew for the loss of life and have blamed Korean officials for the slow pace of the recovery operation.

Four more crew members of the ship were arrested Thursday, bringing the number in custody to 11.



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