The captain of the sunken South Korean ferry has been charged with manslaughter following the disaster that has left more than 300 people either missing or dead.
The Sewol’s chief engineer, first officer and second officer have also been indicted on the grounds of gross negligence, prosecutors said. If convicted the four men face life imprisonment.
Captain Lee Joon-seok was one of the first people to escape from the sinking ship when rescue boats arrived. He also took around half an hour to issue an evacuation order, and there is some doubt as to whether his message ever got through to passengers.
Of 476 passengers and crew on board the ship, just 172 were rescued – including 22 of the 29 crew members. Prosecutors have also indicted another 11 of them on less severe charges of negligence.
A month after the disaster, 281 bodies have been recovered but 23 people remain missing, with the deteriorating condition of the vessel making the ongoing recovery effort increasingly difficult.
South Korea ferry disaster
South Korea ferry disaster
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A woman ties a yellow ribbon dedicated to dead and missing passengers onboard sunken passenger ship Sewol to a pillar at Yellow Ribbon's Garden set up at Seoul City Hall Plaza
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A South Korean man walks past a well-wishing ribbon in Seoul
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High school student who are members of the Youth section of the Seoul Alpine Federation, climb to display a sign reading 'My dear friend I will remember you forever' while hoping for the safe return of the sunken ferry Sewol's missing passengers as they hang on a rope bridge on the Ansan mountain in Seoul
4/6 South Korea ferry disaster
High school student hold a sign reading 'My dear friend I will remember you forever' while hoping for the safe return of the sunken ferry Sewol's missing passengers as they hang on a rope bridge on the Ansan mountain in Seoul
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File image: A diver gets out from the sea after attempting to search for the missing passengers at the site of the sunken South Korean ferry 'Sewol' off Jindo on 26 April, 2014
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South Korean coast guard officers try to rescue passengers from the Sewol ferry as it sinks in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea
When it set sail on 16 April, the Sewol’s stability was severely compromised following a recent remodelling to add capacity, prosecutors said. When it sank it was also heavily overloaded and did not have enough water in its ballast tanks to keep it steady.
Investigators say strong currents in the disaster zone made the vessel less responsive to navigation and prompted the crew to make a turn of 15 degrees, sharper than would be advisable, which led the ferry to list rapidly and then sink.
Prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said: “The captain should have been in command of the navigation, but left that to a third officer, and that is gross negligence,” adding there was enough evidence to support a charge of wilful negligence on the part of the captain and three other officers.
“The charge of homicide was applied because they did not exercise their duty of aid and relief, leading to the deaths of passengers,” he said. Ahn also revealed that some crew had confessed that “they were thinking about their own lives”.
The Sewol was on a routine journey from the mainland port of Incheon to the southern holiday island of Jeju when it sank, and included in its passengers 339 students and teachers on a single school trip.
The government of President Park Geun-hye has faced sharp criticism for its handling of the disaster and the rescue effort, with an outpouring of anger over suggestions that a more effective initial response could have saved many more.
Authorities have also said they fear that the owner of the ferry’s operating company, Chonhaejin Marine, may attempt to flee the country.
Yoo Byung-aeon is due to appear for questioning on Friday but has gone into hiding with his four children, who also have positions in the company.
A prosecution spokesperson told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper: “We are not talking about a petty criminal, but a man who is the son of a religious leader, a renowned artist and a major shareholder in multiple businesses. He just fled immediately after being summoned for questioning.”
Prosecutors also said they were investigating officials of a number of shipping inspection agencies. They said the crew members’ first court dates have yet to be finalised.