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Hostile families hurl curses, shouts at ferry crew as trial begins

GWANGJU, South Korea (AP) - Hostile spectators cursing, shouting and weeping behind them, 15 crew members from the sunken South Korean ferry appeared in court Tuesday to enter pleas on charges of negligence and failing to save more than 300 dead or missing passengers.

As the crew members stood with bowed heads before three Gwangju District Court judges, families of the victims struggled to contain their fury. Many wore yellow ribbons in memory of those killed in the April 16 accident, most of whom were students on a school trip. The crowd erupted when one crew member appeared to smile, and a judge asked the defendants to show respect. The judges also asked the crowd to be quiet.

"Everybody should be sentenced to death," one spectator said. One crew member wept so hard she couldn't identify herself to the judges.

Because of time constraints Tuesday, only 11 of the 15 entered pleas of not guilty. The remaining four are scheduled to appear at a hearing in one week.

All surviving crew members responsible for the ship's navigation have been charged with negligence and with failing to do their duty to protect passengers. Several of the defendants acknowledged some responsibility at Tuesday's hearing but denied that they caused the sinking, saying they had little control over the stability of the ferry, which was overloaded with cargo.

After expressing his condolences to the victims' families, Judge Lim Joung-youb emphasized the rights of the defendants to make their own arguments.

The pervading public hostility against the crew has raised questions about the fairness of the trial. They are being defended by six state-appointed lawyers, three of whom started practicing law only this year. The court said in a statement that it will guarantee the rights of both the defendants and the victims.

Capt. Lee Joon-seok and three other crew members are charged with homicide - a charge that could carry the death penalty, though South Korea has not executed anyone since late 1997. Prosecutors accuse them of tacitly colluding to abandon the ship while being aware that the passengers would be trapped and killed when the ship sank.

Lawyers of crew members denied there was collusion, saying the sailors were confused, some were injured and some panicked. They also said that most of these crew members were not in a position to act independently without orders from the captain or first mates.

Crew members also denied that their actions caused the sinking. The captain and the first mate denied they were responsible for the overloading of cargo or improper stowage of cargo, because the cargo was overseen by the employer, Chonghaejin Marine Co.

The captain's lawyer, Lee Kwang-jae, said the factors that caused the sinking couldn't be controlled by a captain who operated the ferry only six days a month as a contract worker.

The captain was the subject of fury and anger when video footage of him escaping in black underpants was released. But his lawyer denied that he fled, saying the coast guard rescued him. The captain tried to correct the ferry's balance and asked people to wear life vests, even though he was injured, according to his lawyer.

The lawyer said that Park Han-gyeol, the third mate on duty, suffered a panic attack during the sinking and sat and wept in a corner on the bridge.

Some accounts of the sinking given in court have conflicted with what prosecutors told the public.

Most lawyers said crew members did some measures to rescue passengers, citing examples of going back to the ferry to break its windows, rescuing passengers and conducting CPR.

Also for the first time, one sailor said he relayed the evacuation order to a cabin crew. Seo Chung-won, lawyer of Kim Young-ho, a second mate who communicated with a vessel traffic services official during the sinking, said Kim sent an evacuation order to Yang Dae-hong, the chief officer in the cabin area. Yang, who sent out announcements to the rest of the ship, died. Survivors said they heard no evacuation orders and prosecutors argued a timely evacuation order could have saved more lives.

The first court hearings have shown that determining who is responsible for the sinking and the botched rescue process will not be easy. Coast guard personnel are being investigated over whether their rescue measures were appropriate, and court hearings will begin later this month for Chonghaejin executives accused of overloading cargo.

In a statement, a committee of ferry victims' families demanded strict punishment of the crew.

"They say wounds heal as time goes by, but, for us, it's like time has stopped," the statement said. "The defendants, who should have saved the passengers first, ran out first and lived.... The defendants not only killed the passengers, they also killed the souls of the families and basic trust in our society."

Nearly two months after the sinking, 292 bodies have been recovered and 12 people are still missing. Divers continue underwater searches for those believed trapped inside the sunken ship off the country's southwestern coast.

Since the sinking, President Park Geun-hye has pushed to restructure government agencies and reshuffle top officials to try to restore public confidence damaged since the ferry sinking.

On Tuesday, Park nominated a former senior journalist to replace the outgoing prime minister, who resigned to take responsibility for the government's handling of the sinking. Park's first choice for the job resigned amid allegations of ethical lapses.

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stengernc June 11 2014 at 7:21 AM

Asian culture is to blame....sorry but it is true. They are taught to obey the higher command, once the captain left the ship early, the crew fell apart so the captain is the one to be stoned to death by the families who lost loved one. Second, the greedy owner of the ferry line needs to be shot along with the agents who received bribes to allow the ferry to be over loaded. Graft is a major play in South Korea, decisions are made for money instead of common sense and safety. I know, having done business there. The culture needs to change.

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7 replies
stevcer June 11 2014 at 7:29 AM

The corporate greed of Chonghaejin has come home to roost. Their profiteering from overloaded vessels and paid-for government over site will cost them dearly. As it has cost the families of those that put their trust in this company to provide a safe and effective service to the public. Most of these large companies see the public as their serfs to be done with as they please. We must please the investors!!!

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1 reply
CalSailor stevcer June 11 2014 at 3:55 PM

stev: You are right. And maybe this will expose the company. The families of more than, what 400 dead kids?, will push this far beyond a normal merchant with 25 crew members. I hope so. [the word however, is oversight - from "over see" "site" is a location, like a web site]

I feel bad for the VP of the high school, who committed suicide after the sinking. He had no way ot knowing, either, that this ferry was a death trap. But he booked the trip. He took responsibility.

Pr Chris

Pr Chris

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ilenedan2 June 11 2014 at 9:13 AM

In EVERY ship in EVERY culture on earth, the Captain is the absolute authority in charge of the ship. He denials notwithstanding, the Captain is responsible. I don't care who oversees the cargo. That company is also responsible if they overloaded the boat but- and it is a big but- the Captain IS responsible for getting on the ship and taking command. If he thought the boat could be overloaded, it was his responsibility to refuse to leave dock. The crew is always taught to obey the captain, but leaving the ship when there were still hundreds of children aboard? That seems unbelievable. I can't imagine leaving children.

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2 replies
edritzer ilenedan2 June 11 2014 at 9:43 AM

What if the last captain was fired for not overloading the ship?

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2 replies
platanis2008 edritzer June 11 2014 at 10:16 AM

What about it?Following orders that kill innocent people is ok, then?

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jaime edritzer June 11 2014 at 3:58 PM

Better to be fired than on trial for basically killing 311 people. I would never choose a paycheck over the lives of the people I am intrusted to safeguard.

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CalSailor ilenedan2 June 11 2014 at 3:52 PM

ilenedan. It sounds like you, too have some experience with maritime law. You are right: The Captain should never have left the dock with any question as to how seaworthy his vessel is. He needs to tour the vessel, and KNOW for himself that the ship is seaworthy. If not, he refuses to sail. That is just the way it is at sea.

edritzer - if the previous captain was fired, well, so be it. And if the ship sails, like this one, then his testimony is critical against the company. But at least he would not be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians who were not sailors and had no way of independently understanding how dangerous the ship was that they were sailing on. The 3rd mate was conning the ship when she capsized. Her first trip through the passage. Why wasn't her captain or chief mate on the bridge, observing. She apparently qualified by knowledge, but did not have judgment or maturity to hold that job. She panicked and huddled in a corner of the bridge???

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edritzer June 11 2014 at 9:04 AM

Why aren't the ships corporate owners on trial? They are the ones who are responsible for setting the standards and putting controls in place to see that the standards are adhered to. Unless it is shown that the captain and crew were aware of the standards, willfully worked outside the standard, and this was an isolated incident that caused the ship to sink, then the blame lies squarely with the corporation.

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1 reply
ilenedan2 edritzer June 11 2014 at 9:29 AM

Any competent captain would have made saving the passengers the number one priority and gotten them up on deck. Anything else he says or does is irrelevant. By telling those passengers to remain below deck, allowing them to get sealed in there by gravity once the ship listed, he killed them. If they had come up onto the open deck, even if they had ended up in the water, most would have been saved. It was gross incompetence. This is common knowledge. Anyone who has taken a cruise knows these facts. To suggest a man who makes his profession on the sea did not know better is laughable. That does not mean the corporate managers are off the hook, but the Captain is ultimately responsible for the ship and it WAS his immediate errors that caused all these deaths.

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1 reply
CalSailor ilenedan2 June 11 2014 at 3:59 PM

The captain should immediately have had everyone muster at the lifeboat/abandon ship stations. They should have donned life jackets and been mustered there. That way, they would have had access to boats (if there were any) and/or the water, and with life jackets, they would have floated, even if they couldn't swim. Life jackets are designed with the ability to link them together. If it was necessary to abandon ship into the open water, they should have been instructed to link up into groups. That way, they would have stayed together, and could have been more easily found. By doing what they did, these kids had no way to save themselves. The corporation for sure, but most immediately the Captain's actions...both before he sailed, and after the ship started to capsize, are where the blame lies.

Pr chris

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MICHAEL June 11 2014 at 12:11 PM

in all fairness, i dont think there was collusion between the crew members to abandon the ship and the passengers. collusion requires time and conversation between people. the ship was sinking, there was no time for them to sit around and develop a plan to exit the ship and leave the passengers. i believe the ferry owner bears the brunt of the responsibility for allowing the ferry to be overloaded with cargo which resulted in the ferry tipping over. where is the owner?

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kimberlina.edington June 11 2014 at 10:51 AM

Out of ALL Asian people that I have had dealings with MONEY IS TOP PRIORITY this is what caused the OVERLOADED Cargo and THE DEATH of TOO many young lives. The Captain IS a COWARD as we all know. Also, the entire Asian culture are GREEDY American HATERS. I AM SO PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!!!!

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2 replies
hanna vanhoose kimberlina.edington June 11 2014 at 12:19 PM

well I am American as well but your response here is filled with a huge amount of bias for sure. where do you get off referring to the Asian culture as being greedy American haters. no one tops America as being greedy or underhanded in their business or other dealings. this nation has been sitting by and watching our morals decline every day from schools and education to morality and integrity. you are exactly the type of American we don't need anymore. you would make me ashamed to be an American if I had to be like you. my son has done 4 tours in afghan, just got home and I assure you that if he read this he would ashamed to think he fought and risked his life for someone with your attitude.

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CalSailor kimberlina.edington June 11 2014 at 4:08 PM

I'm an American, too. But your answer is far off the mark. You blame asians for being greedy? Well, there are plenty of American corporate heads who have done things that have caused immmense damage and lives lost here, too. Few are in shipping, because we have only a small shipping industry any more. How about coal companies which have pushed the safety limits beyond what is allowed to the point that they have had numbers of cave ins. How about petroleum products which have poisoned the soil and air for many americans?

NO PEOPLE of ANY nation can be called all good or all bad. ALL people are composed of good and bad people. That includes Americans and Asians and Europeans and Africans and Latin Americans, etc. In other words, everyone.

By the way, there is a difference between patriotism, love of country, and jingoism [ the feelings and beliefs of people who think that their country is always right and who are in favor of aggressive acts against others.]

Which are you

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jurmik June 11 2014 at 9:21 AM

Why dont the USA parents demonstrate at schoolsites where their children are being murdered...

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2 replies
MICHAEL jurmik June 11 2014 at 12:14 PM

because it might upset all those gun owners and their 2nd amendment rights.

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usci1 jurmik June 11 2014 at 12:47 PM

Because it is not the place where it happened, but why it happened and is expressed very vocally in the media.

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karenkelley26 June 11 2014 at 9:16 AM

The people responsible for this are the owners and the captain. The owners were greedy and I am sure it was not the first time the ferry was overloaded. The captain is a coward (and sorry, he is responsible for that ferry no matter how many days a month he sailed it, it is ridiculous to claim otherwise). That being said, the captain should be charged , but he should go to jail, not be put to death. Unless one of these crew members actually held someone back and did not allow them to escape, they should not be charged with murder, they should not be charged at all. If they ran when they could have helped then they are cowards, not criminals. They will live with the shame and guilt of their cowardness for the rest of their lives. How sad and pathetic it is that the choices for the crew members are they should have stayed on the ship and died or saved themselves, lived and now be charged with murder. I am sure most of them now wish they had died on that ship. That is wrong.

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hi bev June 11 2014 at 7:10 AM

It should be easy to find out if it was the Captain's duty or another person on that ferry to oversee the cargo. If it wasn't they are not at fault. As for saving more children - Anyone in that situation whether child or adult would be in a frantic mode and very difficult to help because they probably would , not meaning to, be dragging you down with them. This is a very sad situation but truthfully I don't feel they are at blame. When things like this happen you want to find someone or something to blame but in this case I do not feel its the crew.

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3 replies
CalSailor June 11 2014 at 3:45 PM

The captain was not responsible for overloading because it was the responsiblity of the owner? Sorry. That doesn't wash. Under the Law of the Sea (maritime Law), the CAPT. is responsible for everything that happens on his ship. I don't care if he was a contract officer who only worked one week a month--or one day a year. HE is responsible for the seaworthiness of the ship. It is his his responsibility to ensure that it is actually seaworthy and capable of leaving the dock. If he doesn't KNOW the condition of the ship, then he should refuse to sail. He might be fired, but he would not be responsible for all these deaths. When I trained as the Officer of the Deck, I was told that it was my responsibility to have the correct picture before assuming the watch...because the moment I said "I have the watch" YOU are ultimately responsible. If you do not have the picture, rather refuse to relieve and go over the issue with the previous OOD. This captain can't get out of this.


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