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Saturday 24 March 2018

Ferry chief blamed for ship sinking

Family members of passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol sit outside Gwangju District Court in Gwangju, South Korea (AP)
Family members of passengers aboard the sunken ferry Sewol sit outside Gwangju District Court in Gwangju, South Korea (AP)

A ferry operator's chief executive and four employees caused the sinking of a South Korean ship by overloading the vessel with poorly stowed cargo after a risky redesign and neglecting safety by spending next to nothing on crew training, prosecutors claimed today.

The defendants countered that the cause of the disaster in April which left more than 300 people dead or missing was not yet clear.

The five had been expected to verbally enter pleas at today's preliminary hearing at Gwangju District Court, but their lawyers said they needed more time and would submit written pleas later. Another court hearing is scheduled for three weeks' time.

The chief executive and four managers at the ferry company faced a decidedly less hostile reception today than the 15 crew members charged with negligence had at their hearing last week.

Families of the dead heckled and screamed at the crew members throughout that hearing.

Today, spectators , many of whom were reporters, listened quietly as prosecutors read the indictment. When Judge Lim Joung-youb asked if there were relatives of the victims present, no hands were raised.

Prosecutors indicted the company officials for alleged professional negligence and violating a law on measures required for safe maritime navigation.

The Sewol, a 6,825-ton car ferry purchased in Japan in 2012, was redesigned to add cabins and create an exhibition room after its purchase, according to the indictment. The ship became top-heavy as a result of the rework, so the Korean Register of Shipping approved the vessel on condition that it substantially reduced its cargo limit.

Chonghaejin Marine is said to have continued to overload the ferry with cargo even though the company knew the ship's redesign made it top-heavy and unstable. By routinely overloading the Sewol with cargo, Chonghaejin made an extra 3 million US dollars (£1.8 million in profit in the past year, according to the indictment.

Chonghaejin chief executive Kim Han-sik, 71, did not deny that the ferry was overloaded with cargo and had been redesigned, but contended that it was questionable whether those factors led to the sinking, according to his lawyer, Kang Seok-won.

Defendant Nam Ho-man, who headed Chonghaejin's cargo team, never told workers to load as much cargo as possible, did not know the ferry's cargo limit and did not know how much cargo was loaded on the day of the accident, according to his lawyer, Kim Jun-seong.

Meanwhile, prosecutor Park Jae-eok said the five defendants abandoned the passengers' safety in return for economic benefits and must be held responsible.

Chief executive Kim encouraged managers at a weekly gathering to meet the ferry's cargo goals even as he sought to sell the ship because of instability caused by the redesign, mounting losses and too much cost, Park said. If the cargo goal was not met, the weekly meeting was used to caution employees, he said.

The prosecutor also said that the employees at Chonghaejin were responsible for the captain and crew's abandonment of the sinking ship and the failure to protect passengers because they did not oversee sailors' emergency training and spent only 2 US dollars (£1.20) on training last year.

The Sewol sinking caused widespread grief and fury and prompted South Korea to reassess its long history of disregarding safety as it pursued economic growth. President Park Geun-hye has publicly apologised and reshuffled her Cabinet.

All but one of 15 crew members responsible for navigating the ferry previously pleaded not guilty to charges linked to their alleged failure to protect passengers, who were mostly high school students on a school trip.

The crew members, including the captain, said through their lawyers that their employer was responsible for the ship's sinking because sailors had no control over cargo. They said the coast guard was responsible for rescuing the passengers.

Meanwhile, 292 bodies have been recovered and 12 people are still missing from the ferry sinking, one of the most deadly peacetime disasters in South Korea.

Press Association

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