A prosecutor investigating the South Korean ferry disaster has said the captain was not at the helm at the time of the accident. The report will fuel growing anger among relatives as the death toll rises further.
In a press conference detailing the preliminary findings of the investigation, prosecutor Park Jae-eok revealed that the ferry's third officer had been in command when the vessel capsized.
"The captain was not in command when the accident took place," Park said, adding that captain Lee Joon-seok may have been off the bridge entirely.
Lee was among 179 people who survived when the ferry capsized on Wednesday on a routine trip from the Korean mainland to the holiday island of Jeju.
At least 25 passengers have so far been confirmed dead, while divers have renewed efforts to find 271 people who are still missing. Most are students and teachers who were on a school trip.
No passengers have been found alive for many hours and with hopes fading that any more survivors will be plucked from the freezing waters, anger has begun to rise among grieving relatives.
Lee was already considered the focus of relatives' blame amid allegations that he and some of his crew were among the first to leave the sinking ship.
There are also reports that some of the passengers were instructed to remain where they were for up to 40 minutes as the ship listed sharply. Relatives suggest their loved ones may otherwise have had time to reach evacuation points.
In a statement on Thursday Lee said he felt "really sorry for the passengers, victims and their families."
"I feel ashamed," the 69-year-old said.
He did not address the allegations against him, nor did he offer any details regarding what caused the ferry to capsize in calm, shallow waters.
Investigators have refused to comment on reports that the vessel turned before it listed to port and capsized.
Coast guard officials say the investigation is focusing on possible crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and structural defects of the vessel, although the ship had reportedly passed all safety checks.
Weather blights search efforts
Meanwhile a team of divers are at the site of the accident looking for the remaining passengers and rescuers have started pumping oxygen into the ferry.
Three cranes are to due to be set up at the site of the accident later on Friday in a bid to salvage the vessel.
However strong currents and poor visibility have so far hampered divers' attempts to enter the ship.
ccp/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters)