The first of 75 school children to speak in the trial over the South Korean ferry disaster have described how they were forced to float to safety after coastguard officers refused to help them and crew members told them to stay where they were.
Six teenage girls gave their testimony today as 15 members of the Sewol’s crew faced charges ranging from abandoning ship to manslaughter.
The horrific incident on 16 April, South Korea’s worst disaster in 44 years, saw 304 people killed. The dead included 250 teenagers from the same high school and 12 of their teachers.
Speaking today about how they witnessed the deaths of hundreds of their fellow students, the girls had their names protected and were offered the chance to speak behind a screen or via video link to minimise the trauma of going over the ordeal again.
One of the teenagers described how, even with the ship heavily listing and the water clearly flowing in, crew members had told passengers, “specifically the students of Danwon High School”, to stay in their cabins.
“We were waiting and, when the water started coming in, the class rep told everyone to put on the life vest,” another said.
“The door was above our heads, so she said we'll float and go through the door and that's how we came out. Other children who got out before us pulled us out.”
The teenagers were critical of coastguard officers, who allegedly waited on boats at a distance from the stricken ferry for passengers to swim out rather than going into the ship to try and rescue them.
“They were outside,” one said. “They pulled us [onto boats] but they didn't come inside to help. We said to ourselves: ‘Why aren't they coming in?’.”
Another student said it appeared there were more fishermen involved in the rescue than coastguard officers. Like others, she said the crew should be punished severely for their actions.
“More than that, I want to know the fundamental reason why my friends had to end up like that,” she said.
The crew members on trial, including the captain, Lee Joon-seok, have said they thought it was the coastguard's job to evacuate passengers. Video footage of their escape triggered outrage across South Korea.
As well as leading to significant criticism for the government’s handling of the rescue operation, the Sewol disaster sparked South Korea’s biggest manhunt as authorities searched for Yoo Byung-un, the man at the head of a family business that operated the doomed ferry.
Yoo's badly decomposed body was identified last week after it was found by a farmer at an orchard last month.
Earlier on Monday, a close associate of Yoo, a woman identified by police only by her last name of Kim, was arrested after handing herself in. It was believed she helped him elude police after the disaster.
Another woman, the wife of Yoo's driver who was thought to have been with him during his final days at large, also turned herself in to police. And their arrests came three days after police stormed an apartment on the outskirts of Seoul and found Yoo's elder son, Dae-gyun, who was wanted for embezzlement.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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