Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Tensions rise as prosecution accuses South Korean ferry crew of negligence

Many of the 250 children who drowned could have been saved if order was given to evacuate, prosecutors said

Many of the 250 children who drowned when a South Korean ferry sank in April would have survived if the crew had issued a simple order to evacuate to emergency decks just outside their cabins, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

Fifteen surviving crew members of the ferry Sewol, including the ship's captain, are on trial on charges ranging from negligence to homicide after they told passengers to stay put in their cabins before abandoning the vessel.

Also on Tuesday, an interim report by the South Korean government found that government negligence and corruption was a factor that caused the April 16 ferry sinking. The report, according to the BBC, cited lax regulation, poor safety inspections and a slow and badly coordinated coast guard response for the tragedy.

The court in Gwangju, the city closest to the scene of the disaster, was shown video for the first time of the crew abandoning ship, prompting an outpouring of anger and grief. 

Family members rose in rage when one by one the crew were seen escaping the vessel. Many broke down in sobs and shouted at the defendants who watched the video as if mesmerized.

A woman tried to throw a shoe but was restrained by a court guard. Another rose to ask yet again what has been asked repeatedly during the trial — whether the crew would have done the same if it had been their children obeying orders and waiting in their cabins.

"You may have sneaked out and may live a little longer, but you will all die one day," a sign held by a father said.

"Do not end up forever lost in the nether world after being torn to pieces by the children who wait for you having died with their eyes wide open. Try your best to tell the truth about what happened."

The prosecution used a replica model of the Sewol to argue that many of the students were in cabins located near emergency decks on the third and fourth levels.

"Had there been swift rescue measures, the young students would have been able to leave the vessel through the emergency exits," prosecutor Kim Hyun-woo told the court, adding the decks were just outside the cabin doors. "Then there would been minimum or no casualties."

Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from the same school on the outskirts of Seoul. Only 172 people were rescued and the remainder, including children and their teachers, are all presumed to have drowned.

The court also viewed video footage taken on a mobile phone by one of the students that showed them in turn joking, pleading for help and leaving messages for their family saying that they loved them.

"Captain, what are you doing? ... Hey, are we sinking?" one student was heard saying in his cabin.

Lawyers for the defense have argued that it was up to the coast guard to rescue the passengers because its rescuers would have had better equipment and training.

The coast guard has been publicly criticized for its slow and ineffective response. President Park Geun-hye has said it will be disbanded and the rescue role transferred to an agency yet to be created.

Authorities are still searching for Yoo Byung-un, 73 — head of the family that owned the operator of the ferry — on charges of embezzlement. Yoo is seen as a major player behind poorly managed safety protocols on the ferry.

Rescuers have called off the search for 11 people still missing with the approach of a powerful typhoon churning toward Japan.

Temporary shelters that house family members of the missing passengers at a port on the island of Jindo were also shut.


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