Crew of South Korea's sunken ferry drank beer while awaiting rescue: Report

South Korea Coast Guard members rescuing some of the passengers and crew aboard the South Korean ferry Sewol on April 16, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
South Korea Coast Guard members rescuing some of the passengers and crew aboard the South Korean ferry Sewol on April 16, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Some crew of a ferry that capsized in South Korea's worst maritime disaster in 44 years drank beer while waiting for rescue, one of them told a court, in an admission likely to fuel anger at their conduct during the final moments of the mishap.

An engineer said he and a colleague drank beer in a hallway as they waited to be rescued by the coastguard after their ship started to list, South Korean media reported on Wednesday.

"We took a sip to calm down," the engineer, who faces charges of negligence, was quoted by major newspaper Chosun Ilbo as telling the court in Gwangju, the southern city near the disaster site.

The testimony drew ridicule from the families of some victims, who were in court, with one of them asking: "Would you like a beer now, too?"

The 15 crew members on trial, including the captain, Lee Joon Seok, 68, have said they thought it was the coastguard's job to evacuate passengers. When he took the stand last week, the ferry captain, on trial for homicide along with three crew members, said he was just following established practice in not making safety checks before the vessel set off.

Video footage of the crew's escape triggered outrage across South Korea, after they had ordered the passengers, most of whom were high school children, to stay put in their cabins as the ferry sank. Few of the children questioned the order.

Of the 476 passengers and crew on board, 339 were children and teachers from a school on the outskirts of Seoul. Only 172 people were rescued with the rest presumed drowned in the April 16 disaster. School children made up about 250 of the dead or missing.

The Sewol ferry capsized and sank after trying to make a sharp turn while on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju. It was later found to be structurally defective and overloaded.

The government of President Park Geun Hye was heavily criticised for its ineffective response to the sinking. Families who lost loved ones in the tragedy are demanding accountability from the government, but many have wearied of strident activists taking up their cause for political ends.

Family and church members on Saturday mourned at a private funeral ceremony for a South Korean businessman, Yoo Byung Un, who was linked to the ferry, as his death remained a mystery more than two months after the discovery of his body. Yoo's family owns the company that operates Sewol.