SEOUL (Reuters) - The captain of a South Korean ferry that capsized in April killing about 300 people, most of them school children, apologized 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 criticized for what was seen as a botched rescue operation.
The overloaded ferry Sewol had capsized while making a turn on a routine voyage to the holiday island of Jeju. The victims totaled 304 people killed or missing.
Lee was among 15 crew members accused of abandoning 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.
“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.”
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 fueled 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 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.
Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore