Statement comes as hunt for hundreds of missing passengers continues and president meets families of victims.
The captain of a sunken South Korean ferry has apologised to families of the victims and those missing a day after the country’s biggest maritime disaster.
Witnesses told Korean media on Thursday that the captain of the vessel, which sank off South Korea’s southwest coast, leaving at least nine dead and about 290 missing, was one of the first to leave the stricken vessel.
He is now being held by the coast guard.
“I am so sorry and I am shamed. I’m lost for words,” said Captain Lee Joon-seok when asked by journalists if he had anything to say to the victims and their families.
Authorities on Thursday confirmed nine people had died and 288 passengers still missing, a day after theSewol ferry flipped on its side off the southern coast of South Korea. The ferry was carrying a total of 475 people when it sank.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye met angry and frustrated families of the victims on Thursday, pledging that the government will do its best to rescue the hundreds still missing.
Park made a visit to Jindo, where rescue efforts are centred, and promised family members updates and accurate information on the progress of search operations.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it happened. I will order to make a cursory investigation and find out the cause (of the sinking) so that we can severely punish those responsible,” Park said to the families gathered.
One parent, Park Yung-suk, told the Reuters news agency that she had seen the body of her teenage daughter’s teacher brought ashore earlier in the morning.
“There are parents here who believe there are children who are alive on the boat,” Fawcett said. “People here are really clinging onto that hope.”
“If I could teach myself to dive, I would jump in the water and try to find my daughter,” Park said.
The father of one of the missing passengers meanwhile said he received a text message from his child, saying that there were still survivors in the boat. The child said, “I am alive, there are students alive, please save us quickly”.
However, Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Jindo, said “It is not clear what the time lines of those text messages are.”
The ferry, carrying mostly high school students on an overnight trip to the tourist island of Jeju, sank on Wednesday, leaving nearly 300 people missing.
The ferry sent a distress call at about 9am on Wednesday, the Ministry of Security and Public Administration said.
Local television stations showed pictures of the ship listing to its side and slowly sinking as passengers jumped out or were rescued by helicopters.
The ship eventually overturned completely, continued to sink and, within a few hours, only its blue-and-white bow stuck out of the water. Soon after, the bow also disappeared.
The rescue efforts are still under way, but Fawcett said, “The problem for the rescuers is that the conditions are very difficult” because of a strong current and minimal visibility.
The government has launched a 30-strong investigation team and cranes are expected to be brought in on Thursday to raise the sunken ship, Fawcett added.