MOKPO/JINDO South Korea (Reuters) - The captain of a South Korean ferry that capsized two days ago rushed back to the bridge after it started listing severely and tried in vain to right the vessel, one of the helmsmen on the ship said on Friday.
A junior officer was steering the Sewol ferry when it capsized on Wednesday, leaving 28 people officially declared dead and 268 missing, almost all of them high school students. Divers are fighting strong tides and murky waters to get to the sunken ship but hopes are fading of finding any of the missing alive.
"I'm not sure where the captain was before the accident. However right after the accident, I saw him rushing back into the steering house ahead of me," said Oh Young-seok, one of the helmsmen on the ship who was off duty and resting at the time.
"He calmly asked by how much the ship was tilted, and tried to re-balance the ship," said Oh who was speaking from a hospital bed in the city of Mokpo on Friday, where those injured in the incident have been taken.
Handing over the helm is normal practice on the 400-km (300-mile) voyage from the port of Incheon to the holiday island of Jeju that usually takes 13.5 hours, according to local shipping crew.
Divers gained access to the cargo deck of the ferry on Friday, although that was not close to the passenger quarters, according to a coastguard official.
Other coastguard officials said that divers made several attempts to make it to the passenger areas but failed.
"We cannot even see the ship's white colour. Our people are just touching the hull with their hands," Kim Chun-il, a diver from Undine Marine Industries, told relatives of the missing on Friday.
Out of 475 passengers and crew on the ship, about 340 were students and teachers from the Danwon High School in Ansan, an industrial town near Seoul, who were on an outing to Jeju. They account for about 250 of those missing. [ID:nL3N0NA0CW]
"When I first received the call telling me the news, at that time I still had hope," said Cho Kyung-mi, who was waiting for news of her missing 16 year-old nephew at the school.
"And now it's all gone."
In the classrooms of the missing, fellow students have left messages on desks, blackboards and windows, asking for the safe return of their missing friends.
"If I see you again, I'll tell you I love you, because I haven't said it to you enough," reads one message.
Many of the relatives are still waiting the coastal city of Jindo that is the base for rescue operations, although hopes of finding anyone alive were fading fast.
The ferry went down in calm conditions and was following a frequently travelled route in familiar waters. Although relatively close to shore, the area was free of rocks and reefs.
Coastguard officials have said the investigation was focused on possible crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and structural defects of the vessel, although the ship appears to have passed all of its safety and insurance checks.
The captain of the ferry, 69-year old Lee Joon-seok, has been criticised by relatives of those missing for being among the first to leave the ship, according to witnesses at the time of the accident.
Anger has also been directed at South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was jeered by some of the families when she visited the rescue centre on Thursday.
Lee has not commented on when he left the ship, although he has apologised for the loss of life.
He was described as an industry "veteran" by the officials from Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, the ship owner, and others who had met him described him as an "expert" who knew the waters he sailed well.
"I don't know why he abandoned the ship like that," said Ju Hi-chun, a maritime author interviewed the captain in 2006 as one of the experts on the sailing route to Jeju island.
But he added: "Koreans don't have the view that they have to stay with their ship until the end. It is a different culture from the West."
Some media reports have said the vessel turned sharply, causing cargo to shift and the ship to list before capsizing.
Marine investigators and the coastguard have said it was too early to pinpoint a cause for the accident and declined to comment on the possibility of the cargo shifting.
The record of the ferry owner is also under investigation and documents were removed from its headquarters in Incheon.
Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd is an unlisted company that operates five ships. It reported an operating loss of 785 million won ($756,000) last year.
According to data from South Korea's Financial Supervisory Service, a government body, Chonghaejin is "indirectly" owned by two sons of the owner of a former shipping company called Semo Marine which went bankrupt in 1997.
Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Miyoung Kim, James Pearson, Sohee Kim and Cho Meeyoung; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan