Captain of capsized South Korean ferry apologises in court for failure to rescue victims

This aerial handout file photo by the South Korea Coast Guard, taken on April 16, 2014, shows coast guard members searching for passengers near a South Korean ferry that capsized on its way to Jeju island from Incheon. -- PHOTO: AFP/ SOUTH KOREA COAS
This aerial handout file photo by the South Korea Coast Guard, taken on April 16, 2014, shows coast guard members searching for passengers near a South Korean ferry that capsized on its way to Jeju island from Incheon. -- PHOTO: AFP/ SOUTH KOREA COAST GUARD 

SEOUL (Reuters) - The captain of a South Korean ferry that capsized in April killing about 300 people, most of them schoolchildren, apologised in court on Wednesday for his failure to rescue passengers in the country's worst maritime disaster for decades. "I have committed a grave crime. I am sorry," Lee Joon Seok, the 68-year-old captain, was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency.

Anger and grief gripped the nation after the disaster, and President Park Geun Hye's government was heavily criticised for what was seen as a botched rescue operation.

"I know I can't get out of the prison no matter how much my lawyer and God help me. But I can't have my children and grandchildren called a murderer's family," Lee said. "I have never had any intent to kill."

The overloaded ferry Sewol had capsized while making a turn on a routine voyage to the holiday island of Jeju. The victims totalled 304 people killed or missing. Lee was among 15 crew members accused of aban"doning the sharply listing ferry after telling the passengers to stay put in their cabins.

Four, including the captain face homicide charges. Lee has denied any intent to kill.

The rest face lesser charges, including negligence.

Video footage of the crew abandoning the vessel after instructing the passengers, mostly teenagers, to remain in their cabins caused outrage across South Korea.

Some crew drank beer while waiting for rescue, one of them told a court, in an admission that fuelled greater anger at their conduct during a critical time during the disaster.

The court is expected to rule in November.

In the wake of the disaster, South Korean police launched the country's largest-ever manhunt for Yoo Byung Un, the head of the family that owned the ferry operator, and his family and associates.

Yoo was wanted on charges including embezzlement and negligence that prosecutors contend contributed to the disaster.

Yoo was found dead in a plum orchard in June, but his body was not identified for more than a month, despite being the focus of a nationwide search. Forensics have failed to identify the cause of death.

Kim Hye Kyung, a close aide of Yoo, was captured in the United States on charges of embezzlement and brought back to the South Korean authorities on Tuesday. Prosecutors view Kim as a key person managing Yoo's funds.

Prosecutors sought on Thursday a four-year prison sentence for Yoo's first son, according to local media. His second son is still at large.