Ferry Captain's Selfishness Raises Larger Questions

It is becoming increasingly clear that the appalling behavior of the captain and crew of a ferry that sank off the southwest coast on Wednesday was a major factor in bringing the death toll into the hundreds.

Rescued passengers said they heard several announcements over the ferry's public address system to wait in their cabins since it was too dangerous to come outside. As a result, hundreds lost their chance to escape before the Sewol sank.

It was not until 10 a.m., more than an hour after the ferry capsized, that passengers were told to escape. But the ferry's crew did not tell the passengers how.

By then the captain and some of the crew had long abandoned ship and been rescued. They were among the first 47 people to be rescued and set foot on dry land even before the ferry had even gone fully under. The captain was later spotted drying his money on the floor of a hospital where he was being treated.

The Sewol was equipped with 46 lifeboats that could each hold between 10 to 15 people. The lifeboats should inflate automatically once their pins are released. But only one of them functioned.

The ferry tipped over some 50 degrees around half an hour after it began to sink. Passengers tried to escape, but probably found it difficult in the pitch darkness of a vessel without power to find a way out and, even if they did so, to open the heavy doors and windows since the ferry had turned over on its side. They were in desperate need of help from the crew, who knew the layout of the ferry. But many of the crew were only concerned with their own safety.

When the Titanic crashed into an iceberg and sank in April of 1912, only about one-third of the 2,224 passengers and crew were rescued. The captain jumped into the ocean just before the ship sank and helped survivors reach lifeboats. He then returned to the Titanic as it sank. The ship's first officer freed the lifeboats from the ship to save the passengers and gave his own life jacket to another passenger before perishing with the ship. The engineers ran the engines to provide electricity until the final moment to help passengers escape and ended up going under.

The behavior of the ferry's captain and many of the crew, who were responsible for the lives of hundreds of passengers, raises the question whether it was unique to this tragedy. In emergencies like a sinking ship, passengers panic and lose their ability to make decisions. On planes, trains or other form of public transportation, those responsible need to be trained regularly and be well-versed in how to deal with emergencies.

But here in Korea, how many people in such positions actually know how to operate a fire extinguisher or administer resuscitation? These terrible tragedies keep happening because Korean society has focused only on fast progress, while treating safety regulations as a hindrance. The government, businesses and the whole of society need to reflect on these fatal shortcomings.

englishnews@chosun.com / Apr. 18, 2014 12:13 KST