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Student survivors of Sewol ferry disaster testify at South Korea murder trial

Students who had been on board the ferry arrived at the Ansan, South Korea, courthouse under a heavy police presence Monday.

Story highlights

  • At least 294 people died when the Sewol ferry capsized off South Korea's coast on April 16
  • Many of the victims were high school students from the town of Ansan on a field trip
  • The Sewol's captain and three crew members are on trial on murder charges, which they deny
  • Students began testifying in the trial at a hearing in their hometown Monday

Students aboard the stricken Sewol ferry had to use rising water levels to float out of their cabins after the ship listed, survivors told a South Korean court Monday.

At least 294 people died -- including hundreds of high school students on a field trip -- when the Sewol capsized off South Korea's southwestern coast April 16.

The ship had been carrying 476 passengers and crew, and divers are still searching for 10 people.

The ferry's captain, Lee Joon-seok, is on trial, accused of murder, along with three of his crew. They deny the charges.

Twelve other members of the crew have been indicted on charges of abandonment and violating a ship safety act.

It has been alleged that the crew did not use available resources, such as life rafts, life vests and announcements, to evacuate passengers. Instead, passengers were told to stay where they were, according to officials.

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    Six student survivors testified Monday at a court in their hometown of Ansan. Their identities cannot be published.

    The second student to testify said she heard an announcement asking those on board to put on life jackets and remain on the ferry.

    The student told the court that she did not hear any announcement from the ship or coast guards telling passengers to leave the ship.

    She said the ferry listed to the extent that the windows were on the ground and the door was on the ceiling in her cabin.

    As water came in, their class leader suggested that because they were in life jackets they could float to the door. They eventually were able to escape, walking on the hallway.

    The fifth student said that she considered trying to escape once the ferry began listing, but did not because she heard the announcement asking passengers to stay put.

    She said the lights then went out and she saw that the window was completely covered in water. She escaped when the water rose and she was able to float to the door. Students already in the hallway dragged her outside.

    Another student described the scene in the hallway as she lined up to exit. She said a strong current was in the water and about half the students with her were swept away.

    The student said she could see coast guards near the emergency exit, but she never saw them enter the ship.

    After the students' testimony, the court heard from another survivor, who was in a wheelchair and wearing a hospital gown.

    He described how he had managed to get himself near the information desk when the ferry had started to tilt.

    The man said the students had been panicking and a female crew member announced that "everyone should stay put, the ferry is in danger, and that the rescue will be there soon." He said he thought she was trying to calm the students.

    The man said that he had asked the crew member to contact the captain, but that the captain had not responded when she tried to reach him on a walkie-talkie

    The female crew member announced again that everyone should stay put and that help would arrive soon, he said, and later told students to put on their life jackets

    The man broke down crying as he described watching people slide as the boat tilted about 40 or 50 degrees.

    Tense trial opening in June

    The students arrived at the Ansan courthouse under a heavy police presence Monday, with lines of officers surrounding the building.

    At the trial's opening June 10 in Gwangju, victims' relatives yelled and screamed at those on trial upon seeing them for the first time.

    Investigators have said a vast amount of cargo -- more than double the ferry's limit -- and the failure to tie it down properly were partly responsible for the Sewol's capsizing.

    At the trial's opening, the prosecution accused the ferry's owner, Chonghaejin Shipping Co., of putting profit above all else by overloading the Sewol.

    It said the cargo was badly secured, meaning the crew was also culpable.

    Prosecutors said the crew members could have carried out a far more effective rescue operation.

    In June, Lee's attorney told the court that the captain had been helming the ship for only six days, he was the last rescued of all the crew members and he wasn't in charge of loading cargo.

    If convicted of murder, Lee and his fellow accused could face the death penalty, although it has been nearly two decades since capital punishment was carried out in South Korea.

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