Students who survived a sinking South Korean ferry earlier this year have told a criminal trial that they were left to fend for themselves inside as the crew floated to safety. Around 300 people died in the disaster.
All but one of the six students who testified in the Monday morning session of the criminal case appeared in the court room in the city of Ansan, just outside of Seoul, although they had been given the option of doing so via video link from a nearby room - a measure meant to make the experience less daunting.
One of the students, whose names were withheld to protect their privacy, recalled how they were instructed via the ferry's internal tannoy "over and over" to stay put in their cabins, until the vessel had listed severely to one side.
"The door was above our heads. We had our lifejackets on and the president of our class suggested we wait until we could float upwards and then escape," the student.
Help that never came
Another recalled seeing classmates swept back into the ferry as they were trying to escape.
"About 30 schoolmates stood in line in a corridor leading to an emergency exit, waiting for rescue. With no rescuers coming, one student after another jumped into the sea. After I jumped, a wave smashed the exit, keeping the remaining people from coming out," the student said.
Yet another said he had observed the crew floating in a Coast Guard dingy, within an arm's length of the ferry, but that they offered no assistance to those on board the stricken vessel and waiting to be rescued.
All indicated that many more could have been saved had they not been told to stay put. Only 75 of the students from Dawon High School in Ansan survived the disaster. A total of around 300 of the 476 people on board were killed.
The actually trial is being held in Gwangju, 265 kilometers (165 miles) south of Seoul, but the judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers traveled to Ansan, to hear the students' two days of testimony.
Death penalty possible
The captain of the Sewol ferry, Lee Joon-seok, and three other senior crew members are facing a number of charges including "homicide through wilful negligence." If found guilty, all four could face the death penalty.
Eleven other crew members are on trial on lesser charges.
Their testimony comes just days after the authorities announced that a body found in an orchard in the south of the country last month was that of Yoo Byun-eun, who owned the company that operated the ferry.
He had been on the run from police, who were seeking to question him on allegations of criminal negligence, embezzlement, and tax evasion.
pfd/jr (dpa, AFP, Reuters)