Korea has suffered yet another major tragedy that exposes the lack of attention paid here to safety. The Sewol, a ferry carrying 475 passengers from Incheon to Jeju Island, sank on Wednesday morning off the southwest coast, leaving at least nine dead and nearly 290 missing.
It was the worst shipwreck since the sinking of a ferry in 1993 that killed 292 people.
The Sewol was carrying 325 students and 15 teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan south of Seoul on a school trip. A large number of the missing passengers may have been trapped inside the ferry as it listed to port and sank.
Immediately after the accident, it seemed unlikely that the death toll would be so high. The Sewol had virtually capsized but remained afloat for almost two-and-a-half hours. The Navy and maritime police dispatched scores of ships and 18 helicopters, and images of the rescue were televised live. Education officials in Gyeonggi Province, where the high school is located, even sent out text messages to parents at around 11 a.m. assuring them that all of the students had been rescued.
They found out a few hours later that the situation was far worse.
The Sewol is a 6,825-ton ferry that can carry up to 920 passengers, as well as 180 vehicles and 150 containers. Chonghaejin Marine, which owns the ferry, had been advertising it as the biggest cruise ship in Korea equipped with restaurants, showers, and entertainment facilities.
There were no strong winds and the water was calm when the disaster happened. What is most troubling is the accounts from survivors that the ferry's crew instructed the passengers to stay where they were as the ferry tipped over. Those who wasted no time, got out and donned life vests were rescued, and the captain and most of the crew were able to save their lives. But hundreds of passengers sank with the ferry.
Although the exact cause of the accident remains unclear, there are suspicions that the captain opted to take a risky route. The ferry sank in an area dotted with islands off the southwestern coast. It could have sailed smoothly had it chosen a route just a few kilometers further west into the West Sea, rather than crisscrossing among the islands.
The Sewol was to have left Incheon at 6:30 p.m. and arrived on Jeju at 8 a.m. the following day, but thick fog delayed its departure until 9 p.m. This raises the suspicion that the captain opted to take a shortcut through the islands to save time.
A back-up captain was apparently operating the ferry since the regular one was on vacation. Investigators must find out whether the decision to take this particular route and the back-up captain’s possible lack of experience had anything to do with the accident.
The tragedy should not have happened. The ferry accident in 1993 involved a much smaller vessel that had been overloaded with passengers and cargo. But the Sewol was half empty. The accident in 1993 took place amid strong winds and choppy waves, but the Sewol sank in calm waters. And the Sewol remained afloat for almost three hours, while the ferry in 1993 sank in just 10 minutes.
And yet the two disasters resulted in a similar number of deaths. The fatalities from the latest disaster must have been exacerbated by mistakes of those responsible for the care of passengers.
Korea suffered from a series of major disasters in the early 1990s, including the collapse of the Seongsoo Bridge in 1994 that killed 32 people, a gas pipe explosion in Daegu in 1995 that left 101 dead and the Sampoong Department Store collapse the same year that killed 501 people. But in 1993, Korea's per-capita GDP was only US$8,422.
Today it stands at $26,000, showing how closely Korea is behind advanced countries. The country is home to the world's largest shipbuilder and ranks at No. 1 in many other fields. But tragedies like the sinking of the Sewol clearly show it still has a long way to go.
The government failed to even get an accurate tally of missing passengers. Korea may be advanced in manufacturing ships, mobile phones and cars, but it remains in the dark ages where public safety is concerned.
People abroad may get the impression that Koreans place little value on human lives. They cannot develop into an advanced nation as long as this mentality persists. As long as the public mindset and social practices remain trapped in the past, it will not be surprising to see another horrible tragedy like this.