“There are about 450. About 500. Please hurry…” This desperate call for help was transmitted to the Jindo Vessel Traffic Service Center, after the Sewol, a ferry carrying 476 passengers, sank off the coast of Jindo Island, causing heavy casualties. However, despite the desperate call for help, rescue operations did not occur nearly fast enough to save the missing passengers of the doomed vessel. The terrible accident has drawn much criticism, from the irresponsible behavior of the crew to the slow reaction from the government. Yet the most heavily criticized issue has been the overall neglect toward public safety, now exposed to the world as a major problem in our society.
Looking 20 years back
A similar incident to the Sewol disaster occurred almost 20 years ago. In October 10, 1993, the Seohae ferry sank in the Yellow Sea, near Wido, North Jeolla Province, taking the lives of 292 of the 362 passengers on board. The main cause of the tragedy was that the ship was overloaded. The 100 ton ferry had a passenger capacity of 221, yet 362 passengers had been allowed on the ship. When the extra weight from the excess freight was added, the ship was 6.5 tons over its carrying capacity. The overweight ship then lost its restoring force, and the extra weight leaned to one side, causing the ship to lose its stability. This made the boat weak and vulnerable to the harsh sea waves, and the ferry capsized.
Another reason the 1993 tragedy happened was because of the captain and crew’s disregard of poor weather conditions. On the day of the ships scheduled departure, there were winds blowing at over 14 meters per second and waves almost 3 meters high, which according to regulations, restricts any departure of ships. However, the captain of the ship set these problems aside and departed on schedule. Throughout its doomed journey, the ship was constantly losing stability because of the strong winds and waves. In the end, a powerful wave crashed onto the side of the ship, and the captain, as he tried to regain stability, turned the ship at extreme angles of up to 60 degrees at a dangerous speed of 12 knots, straight toward the waves. However, the reckless maneuver eventually caused the ship to lose its stability, and ultimately capsized the ship.
Ironically, the Sewol incident has so many similar safety lapses as the Seohae incident. One of the similar issues was overloading the ferry. The Sewol originally weighed 6,576 tons – 239 tons short of its current weight of 6,825 tons – before it was remodeled to add additional quarters to hold an additional 100 passengers on its rear deck. With the additional 239 tons on the upper deck, it was necessary to increase the ballast tank water weight by 4 times, making the ship only able to handle about 1,100 tons of cargo – a fraction of the previous weight of 2,500 tons. The ballast tank is located at the very bottom of the boat, and provides the boat with stability. However, during the accident, it was revealed that there had been at least 1,945 tons of cargo on the Sewol, and in order to compensate for this excess weight, an equivalent amount of ballast water was allegedly removed from the ballast tanks, making the ship lose much of its restoring force.
A lack of precautions coupled with an inadequate response from the national government bureaucracy also made the accident worse. At first the Korean Register of Shipping (KRS), at first warned that the remodeling to the Sewol might weaken the restoring force of the vessel and denied registration of the ferry. Yet on the second inspection, the KRS deemed the ship stable enough and then registered the ship. Also, before the tragedy occurred, the Sewol reported - falsely - that there were zero containers on board the ship, yet in fact several unregistered freight items were on the ship, adding to the weight of the ship.
The outright negligence of the crew turned out to be another similar problem the two incidents shared. Just like the Seohae case, the captain of the Sewol disregarded the bad weather and proceeded with its scheduled cruise. Yet in contrast with the Seohae, the captain and some of the crew members of the Sewol disregarded their basic responsibilities. According to the 10th article of the Seamen's Law, the captain of the ship must stay on board the ship until all passengers and cargo are unloaded. Also, the 11th article states that the captain of the ship must do all he can to protect the passenger, the cargo, and the ship. Yet the captain of the Sewol shirked these responsibilities and escaped on a lifeboat even before most of the passengers had a chance to escape the ferry.
The fact that the company running the ferry, the Cheonghaejin Marine, invested very little into the safety education of the crew worsened the catastrophe. One of the surviving crew members of the Sewol has revealed to the prosecutors that crew members never received any safety education. According to the Seamen's Law, all crew on a ship must receive safety education on a monthly basis regarding procedures for abandonment of ship, while lifeboat safety education is supposed to be held every three months. Also, it was revealed that a mere 540,000 KRW had been invested in 2013 into the safety education of the crew members.
What has changed?
At this point, one wonders how such a chillingly similar catastrophe could occur 20 years after the Seohae. According to Professor Chung Jae-hee from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), if regulated safety measures had simply been taken properly, then a major catastrophe would have been prevented. One major cause of such heavy casualties in both catastrophes was that hardly any safety precautions were taken. During the Seohae incident, the consequences of such mistakes were revealed through the high death toll. The same kinds of mistakes repeated themselves in the Sewol incident, and in this case an irresponsible captain and crew members worsened the situation, along with inadequate protective measures from the government. Over the twenty years since the Seohae incident, safety regulations and inspections should have been updated to match current standards. However, the Sewol incident has revealed to us that this was not the case. One reason as to why the safety inspection and regulation procedures did not grow more stringent over the years is because the inspections are conducted by the Korean Shipping Association, an interest group advancing the business interests of maritime companies.
The government’s lack of commitment towards expanding and developing public safety measures in Korea is also now exposed as a major, chronic problem. During the Seohae incident, local fishermen on their barges were among the first to reach the accident scene. The government and military arrived later, held back by miscommunication across the different branches of government. The same mishaps undermined the government response to the Sewol incident, starting with miscommunication occurring between the Jeju Vessel Traffic Service Center and the Jindo Vessel Traffic Service Center. Also, the overall response was appallingly slow and disorganized. Initially, the Ministry of Security and Public Administration (MOSPA) took charge of the search and rescue operations. However, as the incident started to go out of hand, the baton was handed to the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries, and then to Prime Minister Jeong Hong-won. The whole process took more than two days, and precious time was lost, especially as nearly 300 missing passengers were still trapped on the sunken ship and had, at most, 72 hours to stay alive. It is now painfully clear that government has still failed to establish a proper system to respond to maritime accidents.
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Today South Korea is known for the way it rose up after years of colonial exploitation and a devastating war that left the entire nation in ashes. The 'Miracle of the Han River' rendered Korea one of the most developed nations in the world. Yet, unlike Korea’s successful economic development, Korea’s social welfare and public safety systems have been neglected over the years, left to degenerate much to the peril of the country's citizens. The Sewol incident must be a turning point so that such a tragedy will never happen again.