The ferry Sewol was built in a Japanese shipyard in 1994 and bought by Chonghaejin Marine from a Japanese company in 2012. Chonghaejin then remodeled the third, fourth and fifth levels so that it could carry 116 more passengers.
As a result, the Sewol's maximum passenger load rose from 840 to 956, while its weight increased from 6,586 to 6,825 tons. The ferry was stretched to its limits.
At the time it sank, the Sewol was carrying 180 vehicles and 1,157 tons of cargo. It was also loaded with three large trailers weighing more than 50 tons. Ferries like the Sewol are like buildings atop ships and have a high center of gravity. There is a strong chance that the Sewol's center of gravity rose even higher due to excessive cargo being loaded onto the upper decks, which would have would have drastically weakened its ability to regain stability after leaning to one side.
There are also suspicions that the heavy containers, trucks and trailers aboard the Sewol were badly secured. Surviving passengers and crew say they saw containers either break free of their restraining cables or shifting unsecured to one side of the ferry after it swerved sharply.
Many passengers said they heard a loud bang, which could have resulted from the cargo slamming into the side of the ferry.
When it left Incheon, the Sewol held about 100 containers stacked three to four stories high. But some crewmembers said the cargo was secured with ropes rather than chains. There is a strong chance that the crew told passengers to stay put after the ferry capsized because they might get crushed by the containers.
The ferry was equipped with 46 rubber lifeboats that could each carry 25 people. They were built to be activated by water pressure or simply by pulling a safety pin. But only one of them actually worked.
The crew said they could not access the lifeboats, because the ferry had capsized. According to law, the crew of ferry boats are required to undergo emergency evacuation drills every 10 days. If they had been trained as required, the Sewol's crew would have been able to notice the problems and replaces them, or somehow manage to activate them under any given circumstances.
Ferry boats in advanced countries train passengers after boarding using life jackets installed in their cabins. They are taught the escape routes, how to activate lifeboats and how to operate flares.
But the captain and many crew of the Sewol were the first to abandon ship. A ship's captain must stay aboard his ship until all passengers have disembarked safely and needs to ensure that all measures are taken to rescue lives. But the captain of the Sewol did not bother to abide by these basic rules.
There are 173 ferry boats operating on 99 maritime routes in Korea. Seven of them are large vessels that weigh more than 5,000 tons. There is no telling how many of those ships were modified to carry more cargo than they were originally designed to do, whether their lifeboats are in order and if their crew have been trained properly. The government must waste no time in conducting safety checks on these ships.
Basic safety rules are easily ignored, but in emergencies they save lives. The string of major accidents Korea has suffered over the years, costing many lives, resulted from a lack of respect for basic safety regulations. In Korea, people who insist on abiding by basic rules are often considered annoying or inflexible, while those who are adept at dodging them are seen as smart. But the country is full of such smart people, and the result has been catastrophic.