S. Korea ferry captain admits he let passengers down

S. Korea ferry captain admits he let passengers down
Lee Joon-seok, captain of sunken ferry Sewol, arrives at a court in Gwangju June 10, 2014.

GWANGJU, South Korea - The ship's captain at the heart of South Korea's ferry disaster acknowledged during his murder trial Tuesday that he should have done more to get passengers to safety as the boat started sinking.

Testifying for the first time in court, Lee Joon-Seok said his decision-making process was paralysed by the shock of the incident, but insisted that he had never intended to sacrifice the lives of the passengers to save himself.

The 6,825-tonne Sewol capsized and sank on April 16, with the loss of more than 300 lives - most of them school pupils.

The captain and crew were vilified for abandoning the ferry while hundreds were still trapped inside, and criticised for ordering passengers to remain where they were when the ship began listing.

"I was stunned by the accident and I lost my ability to make decisions," a visibly shaken Lee told the court in the southwestern city of Gwangju.

"I failed to take the necessary measures for passengers to leave the ship.

"(But) I swear I never thought passengers should be left to die in order for me to make it to safety first," he said.

The bespectacled Lee, dressed in a khaki prison uniform with the number 3114, appeared tense and stammered during his testimony.

The 69-year-old and three senior crew members are accused of "homicide through wilful negligence" - a charge that can carry the death penalty.

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

The findings released Monday of a five-month investigation by state prosecutors, concluded that a deadly combination of cargo overloading, illegal redesign and poor helmsmanship had caused the disaster.

Under questioning by prosecutors in court, Lee said he knew that crew member Cho Jun-Ki, who was steering the ship after working the Sewol for only six months, did not have the required skill and experience.

Lee, when asked if he should have taken the helm as the ship entered a channel notorious for its strong underwater currents, replied: "Yes, I guess so." The Sewol, which was overloaded and top-heavy following an illegal refit, made a sharp turn in the channel, causing it to list sharply to one side.

This caused the cargo to shift, and the ferry was unable to right itself, eventually turning full turtle and sinking.

Asked where he was when the ferry ran into trouble, Lee said he was in his cabin "smoking and changing clothes".

He denied allegations by some crew members that he had been playing games on his mobile phone.

"No, I wasn't playing a game. I wouldn't know how to. I was just holding the smartphone," he said.

Lee has insisted that the ferry owners are the real culprits as it was their decision to habitually overload the vessel.

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