Relatives of the victims of South Korea’s ferry disaster wept amid angry scenes in court yesterday as prosecutors played video footage of the sinking vessel during the murder trial of the captain and crew.
The video, taken from coastguard boats and helicopters, showed the last moments of the 6,825 tonne Sewol ferry as it listed and then capsized on April 16 with the loss of about 300 lives.
Among the dead were about 250 students from the same high school in Ansan, just south of Seoul.
Dozens of family members were in the courtroom in the southwestern city of Gwangju and many wept openly at the scenes of passengers desperately trying to escape the ship.
They also jeered and shouted in anger at the 15 defendants when the video showed closeup shots of the captain and some crew members jumping from the sinking ferry into a rescue boat.
Captain Lee Joon-seok and three senior crew members are accused of “homicide through willful negligence” — a charge that can carry the death penalty.
The 11 other crew are being tried on lesser violations of maritime law.
The bulk of the charges arise from the fact that Lee and the others chose to abandon the ferry while hundreds of people were still trapped inside.
They were also condemned for ordering the passengers to remain where they were when the ship began listing.
Before the video footage was shown, prosecutors had used a model of the Sewol to show where most of the passengers were when it ran into trouble.
In particular, they noted the location of many of the student victims, who, on the orders of the crew, had remained in their cabins on the fourth level.
“With timely evacuation efforts, these students could have fled through these exits,” one prosecutor said, pointing to the model. “But almost all of them waited in their cabins and died. We will make it clear that this result was caused by the behavior of the defendants.”
The atmosphere in the court was highly charged. At one point the mother of one student victim rushed out in tears and could be heard weeping loudly in the hallway.
When the judge ordered a 10 minute break, another family member screamed at the defendants: “You sons of bitches. I’ll kill you.”
As the court adjourned for lunch, one of the fathers stood and began to harangue the judge.
“The evidence is clear. They are human scum,” the father shouted.
“We should just drown them all,” he said, pointing to the defendants. “Why do we need more evidence?”
Even as the judge admonished him for the outburst, other relatives joined in and one woman had to be restrained as she tried to hurl her shoes at the dock.
Lee and his crew were publicly vilified in the wake of the tragedy and there have been some expressions of concern about how fair their trial can be with emotions still running so high.
Yesterday’s hearing coincided with the release of a damning report into the sinking by the state auditor, which said official negligence, corruption and greed had combined in a “manmade disaster.”
The ferry owners had placed “monetary gain over passenger safety,” while the crew had acted “irresponsibly,” said the report, which was the result of a two month investigation.
It recommended that 11 government officials be put on trial and disciplinary hearings held for about 40 others.