The captain and three other crew members of the ferry that sank off South Korea last month were indicted Thursday on charges of manslaughter through gross negligence, Yonhap news agency reported.
If convicted, Captain Lee Joon-Seok of the Sewol ferry, two navigators and a chief engineer could be handed the death sentence, although that penalty is very unlikely to be carried out.
They are accused of leaving the ship as it was sinking while telling passengers, mostly high school students on a school excursion, to stay where they were.
The four, together with 11 other lower-ranking crew members, are accused of being the first to scramble to safety, while hundreds of passengers remained trapped in the sinking vessel.
The four not only failed to issue an order for passengers to leave the ship but also kept to themselves the information that a rescue boat had arrived, investigators were quoted as saying by the Munhwa Ilbo daily.
They took off their uniforms and changed into civilian clothes, being aware that uniformed crew members should be the last to evacuate, the daily said.
Even after being instructed by maritime safety authorities to help passengers evacuate the ship, they failed to take any action and almost an hour later got on the first rescue boat, it said.
The death penalty is rarely applied in South Korea, where a moratorium has been in place since the last execution took place in late 1997. Currently, there are some 60 people on death row.
The 11 other crew members were indicted on less serious charges including wrongfully steering the vessel, and abandoning a ship and leaving passengers in a sinking boat without making efforts to rescue them.
Ferry interior collapsing
Coastguard spokesman Ko Myung-Suk said Thursday that a further five bodies were retrieved late Wednesday, including one found floating on the surface. The confirmed death toll now stands at 281, with 23 still missing.
The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it sank on April 16 after listing sharply to one side.
Of those on board, 325 were children from a high school in Ansan City in the southern suburbs of Seoul who were on an organised trip to the southern resort island of Jeju.
Initial investigations suggest the ferry was carrying up to three times its safe cargo capacity, and that it had been habitually overloaded.
Coastguard chief Kim Suk-Kyun said on Wednesday that divers engaged in the grisly and dangerous task of retrieving bodies were being seriously hampered as waterlogged partition walls inside the ship collapsed.
"As time goes by, the interior is caving in faster and faster, posing serious threats to divers' safety," he said.
One diver, Chun Kwang-Geun, said poor visibility inside the ship forced them to blindly grope through the debris to find victims.
"If we stumble upon something, we grope it by hand (to determine whether it is a body)," said the 40-year-old diver, who has been working on the scene since the day after the disaster.
"Many partition walls have collapsed, blocking our access," he told the media.
Another diver, Lee Sun-Hyong, 35, said the collapsing walls threatened to cut off air supply to divers who mostly use breathing systems tethered to the surface.