The rescue and search operation in the ferry disaster was a textbook case of mismanagement, from attempts to control the situation to the treatment of the victims' families.
Coast guards who were first to arrive at the scene did not attempt to enter the capsized ferry to get them out, and in fact half the survivors were saved by fishing boats rather than the trained professionals whose job it would have been.
The victims' families were told by one official after another that they did not have the authority to do something. Experts say the botched handling of the ferry disaster stemmed from a lack of trained professionals who could orchestrate search and rescue operations.
◆ No Specialists at Scene
One expert said, "Once a disaster happens, a knowledgeable expert must take control and waste no time." This guarantees that prompt evacuations can take place and a major catastrophe averted.
But on the day of the ferry accident, coast guards who were the first to arrive at the scene at 9:30 a.m. focused on rescuing only those passengers who had already come outside waiting to be picked up -- mostly crew including the captain.
There was no attempt to enter the capsized ferry or at least tell the trapped passengers to escape.
The traffic services center on nearby Jindo island was unaware of the Sewol having entered its jurisdiction and received the distress call only belatedly, and then it told the captain to decide for himself whether to evacuate the passengers.
They failed to give the vital evacuation order for the passengers to converge on deck. This is why experts are saying that casualties could have been drastically reduced if a disaster specialist had orchestrated the rescue from the onset.
Park Hyong-ju at Gachon University said, "Looking at the initial response, coast guards appear to have had no training in how to handle a sinking ship and never even imagined such an accident would happen."
Expertise can only be gained through hands-on training rather than textbook education.
◆ Inept Bureaucrats
The slow reaction times of public servants handling the search and rescue operations frustrated family members of the victims. It took 11 days after the accident for the government to decide to assign one official to each of the families to assist them.
Government support for search operations was also incompetent. The first thing the government did after the Sewol sank was to look for crane barges. Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering sent one huge crane barge and Samsung Heavy Industries two. But cranes are used to hoist sunken vessels out of the ocean and are utterly useless in rescuing people or finding bodies.
These huge cranes simply waited for eight days at a nearby port. And when waters became dangerously rough between April 25 and 26, concerns were raised that the crane barges could sink too. They were eventually towed away without having achieved anything.
The National Emergency Management Agency operates the only helicopter in the country that can carry 27 passengers. It cost W44.7 billion (US$1=W1,031). The helicopter left its base in Gyeonggi Province at 10 a.m. and arrived at the scene of the accident at 11:45 a.m. carrying rescue workers. But the crew was unable to get in touch with the cutter dispatched to the scene and had to land at a nearby port while the Sewol went under.
The inept response was due to government bureaucrats orchestrating the operation, rather than an expert well versed in the local terrain as well as different kinds of disaster. The U.S. National Incident Management System is led by experienced field professionals who are given broad control while government bureaucrats provide support.
◆ Incompetent Crew
The captain and crew of the Sewol were the first to escape after instructing the passengers to remain where they were. They were not only unprepared for an emergency but also failed to fulfill their basic responsibilities.