Student survivors of Sewol ferry disaster testify at South Korea murder trial

Student survivors of Sewol ferry disaster testify at South Korea murder trial
South Korea Coast Guard
Monday, July 28, 2014 - 6:30am

Lines of police surrounded a courthouse as student survivors of the Sewol ferry disaster gave evidence in their hometown of Ansan, South Korea, on Monday.

At least 294 people died -- including hundreds of high school students on a field trip -- when the Sewol capsized off the southwestern coast of South Korea on April 16.

The ship had been carrying 476 passengers and crew, and divers are still searching for 10 people still missing.

The ferry's captain, Lee Joon-seok is on trial, accused of murder, along with three of his crew. They deny the charges.

Twelve other members of the crew have been indicted on charges of abandonment and violating a ship safety act.

It has been alleged that the crew did not use facilities at their disposal, such as life rafts, life vests and announcements, to evacuate passengers. Instead, according to officials, passengers were told to stay where they were.

Students who had been on board the ferry arrived at the Ansan courthouse under a heavy police presence Monday.

Only pool media were allowed inside the court for their testimony. At the trial's opening on June 10, there were angry scenes as victims' relatives yelled and screamed at those on trial, upon seeing them for the first time.

After the students' testimony Monday, the court heard from another survivor of the capsizing. The man testified while in a wheelchair and wearing a hospital gown.

He described how he had managed to get himself near the information desk when the ferry had started to tilt

The man said the students had been panicking and a female crew member announced that "everyone should stay put, the ferry is in danger, and that the rescue will be there soon." He said he thought she was saying this to calm the students.

The man said that he had asked the crew member to contact the captain, but that the captain had not responded when she tried to reach him on a walkie-talkie

The female crew member announced again that everyone should stay put and that help would arrive soon, he said, and later told students to put on their life jackets

The man broke down crying as he described watching people slide as the boat tilted about 40 or 50 degrees.

Trial opening

Investigators have said a vast amount of cargo -- more than double the ferry's limit -- and the failure to tie it down properly were partly responsible for the Sewol's capsizing.

At the trial's opening in Gwangju on June 10, the prosecution accused the ferry's owner, Chonghaejin Shipping Company, of putting profit above all else by overloading the Sewol.

It said the cargo was badly secured, meaning the crew was also culpable.

Prosecutors say the crew members could have carried out a far more effective rescue operation.

In June, Lee's attorney told the court that the captain had been helming the ship for only six days, he was the last rescued of all the crew members and he wasn't in charge of loading cargo.

If convicted of murder, Lee and his fellow accused could face the death penalty, although it has been nearly two decades since capital punishment was last carried out in South Korea. 

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