south korea ferry
Judges sit to preside over a trial of crew members of the sunken ferry Sewol at Gwangju District Court in Gwangju. Reuters

Fifteen crew members of the South Korean ferry that sank and killed more than 300 people in April, who face charges ranging from negligence to homicide, went on trial Tuesday.

As the ferry's captain Lee Joon-seok, 68, entered the room, a shout of “murderer” was reportedly heard. Lee and three other senior crew members have been charged with homicide, which could carry a maximum sentence of death while two were charged with fleeing and abandoning ship, and nine others were charged with negligence.

Relatives of the dead passengers, many of whom were children, were present and emotions were reportedly running high. One relative carried a sign that read: "You are not human. You are beneath animals." Relatives intervened when security guards tried to take the sign away.

The Sewol ferry was on a routine journey from Incheon on the mainland to the southern holiday island of Jeju when it sank off the country's southwestern coast on April 16. Officials say it was overloaded and traveling too fast. Of the 476 passengers on board only 172 people were rescued. Nearly 300 were killed while 12 others are still missing.

"It's been two months since the accident ... there's a saying that when time passes the scar heals but for us time has stopped," a representative for families of the dead passengers reportedly said. "When I still see students wearing school uniforms I feel like my child will come back home and say 'Dad, I'm home.’"

Anger over the accident continues to rage in South Korea with many questioning how the captain and crew survived while hundreds perished.

Prosecutors say the crew did not use life rafts, life vests or make evacuation announcements for passengers. Officials reportedly told passengers to stay where they were and investigators have said that badly secured cargo contributed to the overloaded ship’s capsize.

"After the ship was purchased from Japan, they've extended the ship and renovated it and there was a problem with it," a prosecutor said in the court. "The Chonghaejin Shipping Company knew there was an issue with the ship after the expansion but they have pursued economic interests and loaded as much cargo as they can."

The trial’s main focus will be on the crew’s response.

"They have given false info to Jindo VTS (Vessel Traffic Services) that nobody is able to move (but) then they were the first ones to evacuate the ship,” prosecutors said Tuesday. "They were able to carry out a rescue operation but they didn't. Hence, this is murder."