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South Korea ferry disaster: inexperienced sailor was at helm

November 12th, 2017

The captain of the South Korean ferry which sank in April killing more than 300 people has admitted during his murder trial that he had left an inexperienced crew member at the helm when the vessel capsized.
Testifying for the first time in court, Lee Joon-Seok denied allegations by some of the crew that he was playing games on his mobile phone when the 6,825-tonne Sewol ran into trouble.
The passenger ferry capsized and sank on 16 April. Most of those who died were schoolchildren.
On Monday, the findings of a five-month investigation by state prosecutors were released. They concluded that a deadly combination of cargo overloading, illegal redesign and human error had caused the disaster.
Questioned in court, Lee, 69, said he knew that crew member Cho Jun-Ki, who was steering the ship after working on 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.
The bespectacled Lee, dressed in a khaki prison uniform, appeared tense and stammered during his testimony in the court in the south-western city of Gwangju.
Lee and three senior crew members are accused of “homicide through wilful negligence” – a charge that can carry the death penalty.
Eleven other crew members are being tried on lesser violations of maritime law.
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.
Asked where he was when the ferry ran into trouble, Lee said he was in his cabin “smoking and changing clothes”.
He denied the allegation that he had been playing games on his 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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