ANSAN, South Korea – Students who survived the South Korean ferry disaster testified Monday they were repeatedly ordered by loudspeaker to stay in the sinking ship but eventually helped each other flee after finding their cabins were flooded too much.
The six girls spoke at a court session for 15 crew members responsible for the ship's navigation who face charges of negligence and failing to perform their duties to rescue passengers, with four of them facing homicide charges. The students from Danwon High School near Seoul revealed how chaotic the scene on the ferry was, saying they wore life jackets and were helped by friends to float out and leave flooded rooms. One of them said she saw some schoolmates swept away by the waters.
Five of the six students spoke at the courtroom while the rest one gave her testimonies by video at another room. The court asked the media to not identify the teenagers to protect their privacy.
"We continued to wait but only came outside because the water filled the room so much," one student said. She said she heard a message blared from the ferry's loudspeaker that said "'Danwon High school students. Do not move!"
She also recalled how severely the ship listed, saying "The wall became the floor." Another student said "The kids all slid down to the window side . and luggage fell down."
The teenagers said they put on life jackets at the request of a broadcast announcement or at the recommendation of friends. They said they struggled to get out of the cabins due to tumbled furniture but also stepped on them to escape the rooms.
"When I was floating, the room's door was above my head. I came out of the cabin as a friend of mine outside grabbed my hands while another friend took my hip and lifted me up," one student said. "After we got out of the room, we lined up at a corridor and we told each other not to cry."
The April 16 sinking left more than 300 people dead or missing, most of them Danwon students who were travelling to the southern island of Jeju for a school trip. A total of 325 Danwon students were aboard the ship but only 75 survived, according to local officials.
The sinking, one of the deadliest disasters in South Korea in decades, has caused an outpouring of national grief and renewed scrutiny about public safety.
Survivors said they heard no evacuation orders and prosecutors argued a timely evacuation order could have saved more lives. Prosecutors say the 15 crew members abandoned the ship even though they knew passengers would be trapped and killed when the ferry sank. The defense has denied any collusion, saying the crew members were confused, injured and panicked.
Employees at a company that operated the ferry have also been arrested and are on trial on charges of negligence and overloading the ship with poorly stowed cargo. The cargo is believed to have shifted during the trip, causing the ferry to capsize.
A decomposed body found last month has been identified last week as the fugitive billionaire who authorities believe owned that company. It's not still confirmed how the man died.