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Captain blames company for S. Korean ferry disaster

SEOUL -- The captain of a sunken South Korean ferry Friday pinned the blame on the ship's operator for one of the nation's worst maritime disasters, saying it was standard practice to overload the vessel and overlook safety checks.

The Sewol ferry sank off South Korea's southern coast in April with a loss of more than 300 lives. Most of the victims were students at the same high school in Ansan, south of Seoul.

Testifying at the trial of the firm's executives, Lee Joon-seok, 69, said it had been the management's decision to overload the ferry habitually.

Kim Han-sik, the president of the ship's operator Chonghaejin Marine Co, is on trial alongside 11 other executives from the company and related firms on charges including criminal negligence and corruption.

Lee and 14 other crew of the Sewol ferry, accused of abandoning the sinking ship with passengers on board, are on trial separately from the company officials.

“It was an open secret and everyone at Chonghaejin knew very well that the ferry had dangerously been tampered with its ability to rebalance itself,” Lee told the court in the southern city of Gwangju, according to a media pool report.

After being bought from Japan, the ship underwent a massive repair to take more passengers before being put back to service March last year.

“Practically, it was impossible for me, as a captain” to speak up before management about the overloading and the ship's balance problems, Lee said.

“We just followed an old practice,” he said when asked about improper safety checks.

Lee also admitted that he had not been at the helm at the time of the accident, with an inexperienced navigator in charge of the rudder.

The ship lost balance as she was navigating a treacherous channel off the southern coast. It tilted, overturned and sank, killing 294 passengers. Ten others still remain missing.

The Sewol disaster rocked South Korea and triggered a wave of anti-establishment feeling as investigations showed that greed, corruption and a lack of proper oversight had contributed to the tragedy.

In the separate trial, Lee and three senior crew members are accused of “homicide through willful negligence” — a charge that can carry the death penalty.

A fugitive tycoon, Yoon Byung-eun, who had been at the heart of an inquiry into the disaster, was found dead in June in a fruit orchard in an extremely advanced state of decomposition.

Yoo's family owned the ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Co., and he was wanted for questioning over lax safety standards and regulatory violations.

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