South Korea ferry disaster: Captain says lack of safety checks was established practice

Lee Joon Seok, captain of sunken ferry Sewol, arrives at a court in Gwangju on June 10, 2014. Lee told a court on Friday he was just following established practice in not making safety checks before the vessel set off -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Lee Joon Seok, captain of sunken ferry Sewol, arrives at a court in Gwangju on June 10, 2014. Lee told a court on Friday he was just following established practice in not making safety checks before the vessel set off -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (Reuters) - The captain of a ferry that capsized in April in South Korea's worst maritime accident in decades told a court on Friday he was just following established practice in not making safety checks before the vessel set off, Yonhap news agency reported.

Lee Joon Seok, 68, appeared at times disoriented and unable to properly understand questions when he took the stand for the first time in the court in the south-western city of Gwangju that is trying him and three crew members for homicide, it said.

Lee said he was following established practice by not running checks to ensure the cargo and the number of passengers fell within the limits of what his ship could carry. "It's been the custom," he was quoted as saying by Yonhap, when asked why he did not make thorough checks.

The overloaded ferry Sewol capsized and sank on a routine voyage that killed about 300 people, causing an outpouring of grief as well as outrage at President Park Geun Hye's government for what was seen by many as a botched rescue operation. Lee was among 15 crew members accused of abandoning the sharply listing ferry after telling the passengers, most of them schoolchildren on a trip to the holiday island of Jeju, to stay put in their cabins.

The 11 other defendants face less serious charges, such as negligence. The defence lawyers of most said they had done their duty as crew, and the job of rescuing the passengers rested with the better trained coast guard.

The court has heard from teenagers who survived the disaster that they had helped one another in a desperate struggle to escape the sinking vessel. In addition to the schoolchildren, 12 of their teachers were killed.

The ferry was heading from the port of Incheon south to Jeju, carrying students and teachers from the Danwon High School on the outskirts of Seoul, besides other passengers and cargo.

The operator of the ferry has since ceased operation and the head of the family that owned the holding company, Mr Yoo Byung Un, 73, was found dead in an orchard in June, although his body was only identified 40 days later and the authorities have been unable to determine how he died.

Mr Yoo's wife, two brothers and oldest son have been arrested on charges that include embezzlement, but were temporarily released from detention to attend the funeral, scheduled for Saturday.

The police have arrested executives of the ferry operator and subsidiaries of the holding firm. The coast guard, which is set to be broken up, also faces a probe for suspected negligence in the course of the rescue operation.

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