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Captain who left doomed ferry had 40 years at sea

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FILE – In this April 19, 2014 file photo, Lee Joon-seok, center, the captain of the sunken ferry boat Sewol in the water off the southern coast, arrives at the headquarters of a joint investigation team of prosecutors and police in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea. A colleague calls Capt. Lee Joon-seok the nicest person on the ship. Yet there he was, captured in video on the day his ferry sank with hundreds trapped inside, being treated onshore after allegedly landing on one of the first rescue boats. (AP Photo/Yonhap, File) KOREA OUT

FILE – In this April 19, 2014 file photo, Lee Joon-seok, center, the captain of the sunken ferry boat Sewol in the water off the southern coast, arrives at the headquarters of a joint investigation team of prosecutors and police in Mokpo, south of Seoul, South Korea. A colleague calls Capt. Lee Joon-seok the nicest person on the ship. Yet there he was, captured in video on the day his ferry sank with hundreds trapped inside, being treated onshore after allegedly landing on one of the first rescue boats. (AP Photo/Yonhap, File) KOREA OUT

An off-duty helmsman Oh Yong-seok of the sunken ferry Sewol speaks on a bed at Mokpo Hankook Hospital where he gets treatment for minor injuries in Mokpo, South Korea, Saturday, April 19, 2014. “He (the ship’s Capt. Lee Joon-seok) was generous, a really nice guy,†Oh , a 57-year-old helmsman, said of the boss who always asked about his wife and kids and was happy to dispense personal and professional advice. (AP Photo/Lee Won-cheol)

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MOKPO, South Korea (AP) — A colleague calls Capt. Lee Joon-seok the nicest person on the ship. Yet there he was, captured in video on the day his ferry sank with hundreds trapped inside, being treated onshore after allegedly landing on one of the first rescue boats.

Lee had more than 40 years’ experience at sea and could speak with eloquence about the romance and the danger of a life spent on ships. But his reputation now hinges on the moments last week when he delayed an evacuation and apparently abandoned the ferry Sewol as it went down, leaving more than 300 people missing or dead, most of them teenagers.

“He was generous, a really nice guy,” Oh Yong-seok, a 57-year-old helmsman, said of a boss who always asked about his wife and kids and was happy to dispense personal and professional advice. “He was probably the nicest person on the ship.”

Lee and eight members of his crew have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. On Saturday, the handcuffed captain was paraded before flashing cameras, his face hidden beneath the dark hood of a windbreaker. He brusquely denied fleeing the ship, without elaborating, and said he delayed evacuation because of worries about sending passengers into cold waters and fast currents before rescuers arrived.

The fall from grace stands in stark contrast to Lee’s striking portrayal, in interviews given to local media over the last decade, of a resilient and adventurous life spent at sea. It gives a chilling irony to his appearance on a 2010 travel show aired on cable broadcaster OBS, where he captained the Ohamana, another ferry that traveled the same Incheon-to-Jeju route plied by the Sewol.

“For those who are using our Incheon-to-Jeju ferry, I can tell you that the next time you return, it will be a safe and pleasant” experience, Lee said, dressed in a white captain’s uniform with gold epaulets on the shoulders. “If you follow the instructions of our crew members, it will be safer than any other means of transportation.”

Lee, 68, began his life at sea by chance, landing a job on a ship in his mid-20s. He worked on ocean freighters for the next 20 years before becoming a ferry captain, he said in a 2004 interview with Jeju Today, a Web-based news organization. He was then captain of another Incheon-to-Jeju ferry.

“The first ship I sailed on was a hardwood ship that flipped over in waters near Okinawa, Japan. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces saved me with their helicopters,” Lee recalled. “If I hadn’t been saved then, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Lee said there were times he thought about giving up sailing.

“When I got caught in a storm at sea, I told myself I would never get on a ship again. But the human mind is cunning. After getting over one crisis, I would forget about such thoughts, and I’ve been sailing on ships until this day,” he told Jeju Today.

With a poetic flair, Lee spoke of the countless sunrises and sunsets he’d seen at sea.

“When the sun rises, the sea seems to bubble up and roar, but at sunset it’s calm and quiet,” Lee said. “I become solemn, and I think about past memories.”

Lee also spoke of his pride in his work, even if it meant time away from his own family.

“I take comfort in carrying people on the ferry who are visiting their hometowns, helping them so they can spend happy times with their family, something that’s not granted to me,” Lee told Jeju Today. “Today or tomorrow, I will be with the ship.”

The Sewol was a nearly 7,000-ton ship with a capacity of 921 passengers. Its owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., had three captains, including Lee, who took control of Sewol just 10 days each month when another captain went on vacation, said an official at Incheon Regional Maritime Affairs & Port Administration. The official declined to be identified, saying he was not authorized to speak about the case while prosecutors are investigating.

An unidentified Chonghaejin official told Yonhap News Agency that Lee had the longest sailing career of the three captains. Yonhap said Lee was believed to have joined Chonghaejin in November 2006 and to have sailed the route between Incheon and Jeju during his entire time with the company. The information couldn’t be independently confirmed:

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