South Korea ferry disaster: victims were steps from safety, court hears

The company that owned the South Korean ferry that sunk in April, killing more than 300 people — many of them schoolchildren — was blamed for five crashes involving its vessels from 2003 to 2011, but none was considered serious enough to suspend or revoke its licence.

15 surviving crew of the ferry Sewol on trial on charges ranging from negligence to homicide

15 surviving crew of the ferry Sewol on trial on charges ranging from negligence to homicide 1:54

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 on Tuesday.

Fifteen surviving crew 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 sharply listing vessel.

The court in Gwangju, the city closest to the scene of the April 16 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."

Emergency exits

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 Sewol sank off South Korea's southwest coast on April 16 on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

The court also viewed video footage taken by one of the children's mobile phone 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 defence 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, seen as a key factor compromising safety management.

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

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


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.