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,” said Oh Yong-seok, a 57-year-old helmsman, adding that the captain 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.”
Still, there is no getting away from a video of Lee — on the day his ferry sank with hundreds of people trapped inside — being treated onshore after allegedly landing on one of the first rescue boats.
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: Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd. has stopped taking calls from the media, and a company official refused to answer questions from reporters outside its Incheon office on Tuesday.
Crew members interviewed by The Associated Press knew little about the captain’s personal life.
“Although we had no conversation about personal stuff, he was a nice guy,” said Park Kyung-nam, another helmsman on the Sewol. He described a patient captain who would help crew members learn about parts of the ship they weren’t familiar with.
Park and Oh, both of whom were on the bridge with the captain as the ship was sinking, each wondered whether the captain’s age or the fact that he crashed into a door on the bridge, possibly injuring himself, may have been why he left the ship when he did.
“The captain is very old,” Oh said. “But he should have made sure that the crew could escape before he escaped.”
Jang Ki-joon, director of the orthopedic department at Jindo Hankook University, said he treated Lee after his rescue, and he had only light injuries. “Pain in the left rib and in the back, but that was it,” he said.
He wore no crisp uniform, no epaulets. He looked no different from any other passenger in a video of him being treated. At the time, Jang said, he had no idea Lee was the captain.
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