Sewol ferry survivors recount ordeal

Students who survived South Korea’s ferry disaster have described escaping from flooded cabins as the ship sank. The students had obeyed the crew’s orders to stay put, even as water started coming in as the Sewol listed.

Students floated up to cabin doors – by now overhead – and were pulled out by their classmates.

The Sewol ferry sank on 16 April off Jeju island, killing 304 people. The students were testifying at the trial of the ship’s crew.

“We were waiting and, when the water started coming in, the class rep told everyone to put on the life vests,” one of the students told the court.

“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 kids who got out before us pulled us out.”

Most of those who died on the Sewol were teenagers from the same high school who were on a school trip.

The crew are charged with negligence and abandoning ship. The captain and three officers are also charged with “homicide through wilful negligence”.

Investigators say the ferry had been illegally modified to carry more passengers and cargo, and was overloaded. But prosecutors say the actions of the captain and crew – including instructing passengers to stay in their cabins as the ship listed – led to more deaths.

Monday marked the first time students had given evidence at the trial.

They are testifying at a district court near their homes near Seoul, rather than at the actual trial in the southern city of Gwangju.

One witness told the court passengers received multiple instructions to stay put.

“They kept saying the same thing over and over,” a student said.

Another student described escaping through a stairwell to a hatch and jumping into the sea, as a swell hit.

“There were many classmates in the corridor and most of them were swept back into the ship,” she said.

The disaster caused shock and outrage in South Korea, including harsh criticism of both bureaucrats and business officials whose alleged failings or corruption led to the tragedy.

Officials from ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine are also the subject of separate legal proceedings.

Earlier this month, police identified a body found on June 12 as company owner Yoo Byung-eun, who had been the subject of a man-hunt since the disaster.

His son, Yoo Dae-kyun, was arrested on Friday.