Most of the 250 pupils who drowned when a South Korean ferry sank in April would have survived if the crew had issued an order to evacuate to emergency decks just outside their cabins, a prosecutor has said.
Yesterday’s claim came as 15 surviving crew members of the ferry Sewol, including the ship’s captain Lee Joon-seok, faced trial on charges ranging from negligence to homicide. They are alleged to have told passengers to stay put in their cabins before abandoning the listing vessel.
There would have been “minimum or no casualties” had the order been given, a court in Gwangju – the city closest to the 16 April disaster – heard.
The court was shown video for the first time of the crew abandoning ship, prompting an outpouring of anger and grief from families and survivors in the public gallery.
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 mesmerised.
A woman tried to throw a shoe but was restrained by a guard. Another rose to ask an oft-repeated question 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.
The prosecution used a 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.
“Then there would have 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 remaining 294 are all presumed drowned. Eleven bodies are yet to be recovered.
The court also viewed video footage taken by one teenager on a mobile phone that showed them 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.
Defence lawyers have argued that it was up to the coastguard to rescue the passengers because its teams would have had better equipment and training.
The coastguard has been publicly criticised for its slow and ineffective response.
President Park Geun-hye has said she will disband the coastguard and transfer its rescue role to a yet-to-be created agency.
Police are still searching for Yoo Byung-un, 73, head of the family that owned the company operating the ferry, on charges of embezzlement. Alleged corruption is seen as a factor which compromised the ferry’s safety.
The trial continues.