The sinking of the ferry Sewol off the southwest coast on April 16 was the result of endemic disregard for safety regulations, bad judgment and botched rescue efforts, investigations reveal.
The ferry departed from Incheon in thick fog and an inexperienced navigator was guiding the ship through one of the most treacherous waterways in the country at the time of the accident.
The ferry's excessive cargo violently shifted to one side as it made a sharp turn, causing it to capsize. The ferry's captain and most of the crew bailed out first, leaving the scared passengers behind. Many believe that the disaster points to larger problems in Korean society, which places a premium on material gain.
The Sewol was scheduled to leave Incheon at 6:30 p.m. on April 15. But other ships decided to remain in port that evening due to thick fog. Leaving port more than two hours past schedule, the Sewol was the only ship to sail out of Incheon that evening.
Once it got the green light to leave, the Sewol was overloaded with cargo, carrying 3,608 tons including large trailers, excavators, forklifts and passenger cars as against the permissible limit of 987 tons.
The crew are required to fasten cargo tightly, but that was largely ignored. The Sewol left port at 9 p.m., about 3 minutes after the last passenger got on board, which shows the crew did not spend much time securing the cargo. This excess cargo is largely believed to have caused the ferry to capsize.
◆ Stretched Beyond Capacity
The aging Sewol was an accident waiting to happen.
Ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine bought the ferry second-hand from a Japanese shipping company in 2012. It was built 18 years ago.
As more decks were added to the ferry, its center of gravity rose and weakened its capacity to regain stability. The remodeling was authorized by a nationwide cooperative of ship owners.
The ferry passed safety inspections in February this year, but there are suspicions that the checks may have been cursory, and there are accounts that the ferry was dangerously unstable even before the accident.
The Sewol's 46 lifeboats would have been more than enough to rescue the passengers, but only one was operating properly. Crews are required to conduct an emergency rescue drill every 10 days, but the captain and crew were not even familiar with the basic manual dealing with such incidents.
Chonghaejin Marine spent a paltry W541,000 on safety training last year (US$1=W1,041).
◆ Inexperienced Navigator
The ferry sank in an area reputed to have some of the fastest currents in the country. But the ferry's third mate Park Han-gyeol (26), who had begun working for the ferry company for just four months earlier, was guiding the Sewol through those waters.
It should have been the captain or first mate, but the crew stuck to their original work schedule despite the delayed departure. The captain, Lee Joon-seok (69) was not on the bridge as the Sewol navigated treacherous waters but was apparently smoking and resting in his cabin at the time.
There are no regulations stipulating that experienced navigators should guide vessels through dangerous waters, but they do stipulate that a ship's captain must guide his vessel when there are clear risks present.
◆ Botched Rescue
The crew of the ferry made a distress call to vessel traffic services on Jeju Island, its destination, rather than nearby Jindo when the Sewol began to sink. They made the first distress call at 8:55 a.m. on April 16, seven minutes after the ferry began to list. Traffic services in Jindo made contact with the crew at 9:07 a.m., 12 precious minutes later.
But they were also caught off guard. They had no idea that the Sewol had entered their jurisdiction at 7 a.m. that morning and had to be told about it by the Korea Coast Guard. If Jindo traffic services had bothered to monitor their radar, they would have spotted the troubled ferry.
Transcripts of the distress call show the ferry crew and Jindo traffic services trying to pass the responsibility of evacuation order to each other, apparently afraid of taking responsibility later. As they dithered, precious time was lost, which contributed to the huge death toll.
◆ Fleeing Crew
As rescue ships and other vessels sailing nearby rushed to save the passengers aboard the Sewol, its crew simply told those aboard to remain where they were. The captain and crew continued to tell the frightened passengers to stay put until 9:30 a.m., around 30 minutes after the ferry capsized. Yet the first people to jump ship once rescue boats arrived were the captain and most of the crew.
While the passengers were waiting desperately for further instructions, the crew escaped at 9:37 a.m. and set foot on dry land even before the Sewol had completely gone under.
Out of 29 crew, 20 were rescued. Out of 325 teenagers from Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, who were on a field trip to Jeju Island, only 75 were rescued. The captain lied to rescue officials, telling them he was an ordinary passenger.
The public heaved a sigh of relief on the morning of April 16, when education officials in Gyeonggi Province announced that all students had been rescued. Relief slowly turned into despair as TV viewers realized that a major tragedy was unfolding before their eyes.
Education officials in Gyeonggi Province apologized for relaying incorrect information based on what they had initially been heard from some unidentified sources rather than making sure to check the situation. But that was not the last of the mistakes made by flustered officials.
The ministries of Security and Public Administration and of Oceans and Fisheries and the Korea Coast Guard repeatedly announced incorrect figures, which only compounded the anxieties of the victims’ families.
The total number of passengers shifted from 477 to 459, 462 and then to 475, while the number of people presumed to be missing continued to rise.
At 1 p.m. on April 16, the government announced 107 passengers were missing, only to raise that figure to 293 just three hours later.
On April 18, the third day after the sinking, the government announced that there had been 476 passengers and 174 confirmed rescues. But confusion continued.
◆ Poor Disaster Management
The opportunistic behavior of many government officials and their lack of respect for the families of the victims stoked public anger. Families asked the government to let them watch search and rescue operations, but their requests were ignored.
President Park Geun-hye visited the scene of the tragedy on April 17 and pledged to respect their requests. Big-screen monitors allowing them to watch rescue efforts were installed the following day. When Park asked why the casualty figures being tallied by rescue officials were repeatedly being changed, government officials conceded they knew the figures were approximate but were unable to correct the figures immediately for fear of punishment.
Public servants were afraid of taking responsibility for such a huge mistake and simply tried to cover it up.
The victims' families grew so frustrated with the government's inability to provide accurate figures and delayed rescue efforts that they attempted to march to Cheong Wa Dae in protest.
◆ Rumor Mill
Amid confusing information, the rumor mill swung into high gear, causing more pain and suffering to the families. Opportunists and fraudsters used the tragedy to seek fame.
On April 18, a woman named Hong Ga-hye (26), who claimed to be a rescue diver, told broadcaster MBN, "Several divers said to me that they tried to talk to trapped passengers and send signals to each other. I heard the authorities told some of our private divers to sit this one out."
Her comments went viral on the Internet, causing a public outcry over apparent evidence of the government's ineptitude, while family members got their hopes up that victims were still alive inside the ferry. But Hong's comments were pure fiction. She was neither a diver nor did she get anywhere near the ship. She was arrested and charged with defaming the Korea Coast Guard.