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Students in S. Korean ferry disaster testify

Student-survivors of South Korea’s ferry disaster testified for the first time on Monday in the murder trial of the captain and crew.

The students recalled being repeatedly told to stay put as the ship was sinking.

“They kept saying the same thing over and over,” one said, describing how she and classmates obeyed the order until the ferry had listed so far that the door to their cabin was above their heads.

Unfolding tragedy

Another described watching a wave sweep her classmates back inside the sinking boat.

 A man attaches yellow paper ships dedicated to dead and missing passengers onboard the sunken Sewol ferry

The actual trial is taking place in the southern city of Gwangju but judges and lawyers decamped to a court in Ansan city, south of Seoul, for a special two-day session with the 17 students who agreed to testify.

Police cordons blocked public access to the district court as the students – all from Ansan’s Dawon High School – arrived in a red mini-bus. They were escorted into the building by a tight phalanx of police officers.

Although they were offered the option of testifying by video from a nearby room, five of the six female students involved in Monday’s morning session chose to give their testimony in the courtroom.

 Relatives holding portraits of their children who perished when the 'Sewol' ferry sank with the loss of around 300 lives stage a sit-in protest

The student who took the video option described how passengers suddenly slid to one side as the ferry listed heavily.

“The internal tannoy announcement said we should put our life vest on and stay put,” she was quoted as saying. The message was given repeatedly.

325 of the 476 people on board the passenger ferry were Dawon High School pupils on an organised outing.

Only 75 students survived.

Escape

The female student said they had obeyed the order not to move until water started coming through the window of their cabin which, by now, was under their feet.

“The door was above our heads. We had our lifejackets on and the president of our class suggested we wait until we could float upwards and then escape,” she said.

Eventually some classmates managed to clamber up fixed furniture. They pulled the others up and out as the waters inside rose.

 A family member of a missing passenger onboard the sunken Sewol ferry prays near yellow ribbons dedicated to the dead and missing passengers tied to a railing at a port in Jindo May 9, 2014.

Another witness, who testified in the courtroom, said at no time did the crew help her or those who escaped.

As the ferry keeled over to one side, she said a group of them managed to move along a by-now horizontal stairwell towards an escape hatch.

At the moment she jumped out, a sea swell swept over their escape route.

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

The tragedy, and in particular the loss of so many young lives, rocked South Korea with an overwhelming sense of collective shock and grief.

 Lee Joon-seok, captain of sunken ferry Sewol, arrives at a court to attend to his first trial in Gwangju

Sewol captain Lee Joon-Seok and three senior crew members are accused of “homicide through wilful negligence” – a charge that can carry the death penalty.

Captain and crew

Eleven other crew are being tried on lesser violations of maritime law.

A handful of crew members who stayed and tried to guide passengers to safety were among those who died.

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.

- AFP

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