South Korean Ferry Update

The world continues to watch as the story of the South Korean ferry tragedy unfolds.  The sad loss of life apparently could have been avoided on a number of fronts.  

The MV Sewol capsized and sank suddenly on April 16, 2014, with the loss of over 300 souls on board.  Many of these passengers were high school students, which added to the national tragedy.

Overloaded with Cargo

Recent information has come to light that the ferry was grossly overloaded with cargo, which may have added to the problem caused when it sharply turned.  Investigators now estimate that it was carrying more than double what it should have been, and that the cargo was likely not loaded and secured correctly.  This circumstance would contribute greatly to the speed with which the ship sank.

There are very specific guidelines set out for the amount of cargo a ship can carry.  The manufacturer supplies cargo specifications, and, usually, so does the regulatory body of the country where the ships operate.  It appears these limitations were ignored.

According to investigators, since the route was started, just over a year ago, the ship had been severely overloaded about 57% of the time – most of its trips.   The owners of the shipping line have been criticized for putting profit over the safety and security of the passengers, but would this practice had come to light if the tragedy had not occurred?  Probably not.

Inexperienced Crew

Apparently the crew was very inexperienced, from the securing of the cargo to the third mate who was at the helm when the incident occurred, to the lack of safety procedures when the ship was in distress.   While there is no regulation that the captain be on the bridge while the third mate is steering, it is unusual to have an inexperienced crew member steering during a dangerous portion of the journey.  This is what happened, and it appears that he (third mate) was responsible for the sharp turn that sent the cargo flying.  This unbalancing ultimately caused the ship to capsize and sink quickly.

The major reason for the massive loss of life seems to be that the crew repeatedly told the passengers to stay where they were, stay put, and wait for the rescue boats.  If they had moved to lifeboats, or even into the water, there might have been less loss of life.  The water there was very cold, and that might have been the hesitation to send the passengers into the water, but cold water would have been a better alternative to remaining on the sinking ship.

Another issue was that the ship’s crew made a distress call to Jeju, the destination of the ship and not the place closest to the ship’s location.  This miscommunication cost rescuers precious minutes.

Modification of the Ship

It has come to light that when the Chonghaejin Marine Company purchased the 20 year old ship in 2012, it made significant modifications to the ship to accommodate more passengers.  The third, fourth and fifth decks were altered, and it may be that these changes affected the ship’s balance and center of gravity.  There was no regulatory oversight regarding these modifications, and the changes may have greatly contributed to the accident.

Political Fallout

The president of South Korea has dismantled that country’s Coast Guard after it was alleged that it could have done much more in the rescue operation than it did.  The investigation into the disaster has been turned over to the police.

Upcoming elections in South Korea are also affected, as people are unhappy ruling Saenuri party.  Many voters seemed to be turning toward the conservative party in hopes it could bolster the sluggish economy.  Now the anger over not protecting their children has moved the country’s sentiment in the other direction.

President  Park Geun-hye ‘s approval rating has dropped dramatically in the polls to the lowest since her election.

Criminal Charges

The captain (who rescued himself first) and all the surviving crew have been charged criminally with a variety of offenses.   The captain and three senior crew members will answer to charges of homicide.  Nine of the crew are charged with negligence, and two with abandoning the vessel.

The owner of the shipping line, and his children, are being sought around the globe to answer charges in this fatality.  The family business is a spider web of companies and businesses, and will take some time to sort out.   There appears to be a twisted tale of corruption and greed, making the decision to modify the vessel to maximize profits.   The patriarch of the family has asked for asylum in Seoul, but been denied.  The daughter was arrested in Paris, and there is one son who is in the United States.

Changes Ahead

Already there has been legislation introduced in the South Korean government to prohibit modifications of the ship such as the ones performed on the Sewol.  The sentiment now seems to be that putting profit over safety of passengers is not acceptable, and safety will be emphasized.  New regulations are being put in place for cargo limitations and a method to enforce those regulations.  A new Coast Guard will likely be formed, one which has more training and better procedures.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy such as this to implement change.  South Korea has had to learn this lesson the hard way, but hopefully, changes will be made to avert further disasters.