SEOUL, May 15 (Xinhua) -- Captain and three crew members of the sunken South Korean ferry were charged with murder Thursday as they fled the sinking ship without any efforts to evacuate hundreds of passengers.
Prosecutors indicted the captain, chief engineer, first and second mates of the ferry for several charges, including murder, attempted murder and violation of the maritime rescue law.
The 68-year-old captain Lee Joon-seok was among the first rescued after the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol capsized off the country' s southwestern coast on April 16 en route to the southern resort island of Jeju.
On the 30th day into search, 284 people have been confirmed dead with 20 others missing. No survivors have been reported since 172 people were rescued on the day the ship sank.
Those crew members have been harshly criticized for abandoning the ferry after ordering passengers, mostly high school students, to stay put.
If convicted of murder, they could face death penalty.
Other 11 survived sailors were charged with causing death by negligence and violation of the maritime rescue law, which could lead to as long as 45 years in prison.
The ship, which was built in Japan in 1994 and had no accidents for 18 years there, was modified by the ship's operator Chonghaejin Marine to expand passenger cabins.
The ship's self-stability was weakened further as the ferry was overloaded with 2,142 tons of freight.
When the ship began tilting heavily to one side, the third mate rather than the captain was at the helm in the notorious waters for swift currents.
The first stage search for the missing from the sunken ferry ended, South Korea's Coast Guard chief said Thursday.
Kim Seok-kyun said in a statement that divers searched 64 passenger cabins during the first stage operation for the missing people believed to be trapped inside the cabins.
Three more bodies were recovered from the submerged hull Thursday without being identified yet, Kim said, adding that among other 281 people confirmed dead were 246 high school students and teachers, 29 passengers and six crew members.
Kim said 42 bodies were found outside the ship and 242 people were recovered from inside the hull.
Kim said the future search operation will focus on the third and fourth floors of the five-storey vessel.