Seoul - Student survivors of South Korea's ferry disaster testified on Tuesday how passengers, abandoned by the crew, improvised means of escape, using fire hoses to pull people to safety as the vessel sank.
On a second day of student testimony in the trial of the Sewol ferry's captain and 14 crew, more than a dozen high school teenagers recalled the trauma of the April 16 tragedy that killed 250 of their classmates.
One spoke of how she was saved by the actions of an adult passenger as seawater flooded into the heavily listing ferry.
“At first, someone lowered a strip of window curtain that I grabbed on to, but then I slipped back down,” the student said.
“Then a passenger threw me a fire hose and I tied it around my hips and he pulled me up,” she added.
The charges against the Sewol crew arise from their decision to abandon ship while hundreds of people were still trapped inside.
Captain Lee Joon-Seok and three senior crew members are accused of “homicide through wilful negligence” - a charge that can carry the death penalty.
Eleven others are being tried on lesser violations of maritime law.
Of the 476 people on board the Sewol when it capsized, 325 were Dawon High School pupils on an organised outing. Only 75 of them escaped.
Another student said she and several classmates had been trapped inside a cabin by falling luggage as the 6 825-ton ferry keeled over onto one side.
Passengers from an adjoining cabin heard their shouts and managed to force the door open and pull them into the corridor.
“They calmed us down and made a rope with curtain material. Then one man climbed up and pulled us out,” she said.
They were eventually plucked off the sinking ferry by a Coast Guard helicopter.
The national Coast Guard was widely criticised for its initial response to the disaster, and state prosecutors said on Tuesday they had detained the captain of one patrol boat that was on the scene for questioning.
He could face charges of falsifying public records for allegedly doctoring the rescue log to show his unit's response in a better light, the prosecutors said.
Tuesday's court testimony echoed that of the day before, with each student stressing the lack of help from any crew member, and describing repeated messages telling passengers to stay put even as the ship was sinking.
All the students chose to give their testimony in court, although they had been offered the option of testifying by video.
The trial opened six weeks ago in the southern city of Gwangju, but the judges and lawyers decamped to a court in Ansan city, south of Seoul, for a special two-day session with the students.
The Dawon High School is located in Ansan.
Another student witness spoke of watching a group of classmates being “swallowed up” by the water as it surged in and out of the ferry.
Most were wearing life jackets and were able to rise with the water level when the sea first flooded in through the windows.
But then a shift caused the waters to surge towards the ferry's interior and “many students were swept away and swallowed up”, he said.
He was only saved because his foot was trapped in a door frame and when the water started rising again he was freed and managed to climb out of the vessel. - AFP