Friday, April 18, 2014

Total Shock and Shame in the Korean Ferry Sewol Tragedy

Yung Suk Kim

For a few days now my mind cannot find rest and sinks again and again and over again. 476 passengers were on board when the Sewol departed from Inchon to Jeju Island in Korea. Among them, more than 370 were high school students who were en route to that island as part of their school trip. So far about 170 passengers were rescued (actually, they exited the boat) and more than 181 bodies were found so far, still missing 121; most of them are young high school students at their teens. Despite the desperate rescuing efforts, their survival is yet to be heard. While I am weeping, I am shocked to find the following information about this tragedy from various sources of the news report.

1. This ferry was imported from a Japanese shipping company in 2012 and it had been already running for 18 years in the sea of Japan. It could retire there. Before 2012, the official retiring age for a ferry boat in Korea was 20 years old. But this age limit was changed under the Lee Myung-bak government of Korea, allowing for a 30-year old ferry boat running. This must be crazy. In this regard, Lee is to blame since he was a promoter of new capitalism with deregulation policies during his presidency. Because of this law change, the current ferry was imported in 2012 as a used one, which had run 18 years already. Alas! I am very angry because of this law change by the senseless government and the Sewol's decision to import such an aging ferry for Korean passengers.

2. Now this ferry boat is said to have been rebuilt adding more space and capacity for passengers after imported. This rebuilding has to be checked whether this was done according to safety law codes. Along with this, there must be a special investigation about the ferry's technical issues; the official inspection agency of the government also must be investigated.

3. In this ferry, there were two inexperienced ferry crew members (one in controlling the ferry and the other in navigating) who had an experience of less than a year. They were in charge when the ferry sunk hopelessly. The captain in charge was Lee Joonsuk, 69 years old, left them for a while and asking them to take charge. Somehow they took a swift turn for unknown reasons and the ferry tilted suddenly toward the left side and began to sink. We even don't know how much shipload (containers and cars) was carried and whether they were secured and fastened tighten. By the way, we are told that lots of containers fell when the ferry tilted sharply. We are also told that Lee was a replacement for a regular captain who was on his vacation. Worse comes after worse.

4. The most terrible thing happened for 90 minutes when the ferry began to tilt and sink almost. If Lee had made a right decision that all passengers are to leave the ship immediately he felt something wrong about the ferry (there was a big roaring sound), most passengers could have been saved. This critical time of 90 minutes was wasted because the crew members repeatedly told the passengers to stay calm and stay inside of the ferry (meaning stay in where they were). Most students apparently stayed in! They trusted in vain. Why did the captain not ask all the passengers to immediately wear life-saving jackets and prepare life-saving boats for evacuation? One report says no life-saving boats were working except for just two. We don't know whether there were enough life jackets. Without remaining at the helm there to help, instead, the captain Lee and the other crew left or abandoned the ferry and passengers in danger for their lives. They were among the first group of people rescued by the rescue team. Even after being rescued, Lee tried to hide his identity, acting like one of the passengers. I am so sick and hurt of this.

5. However, the only exception is one young lady Ms. Park Ji-Young at her early twenty, who was a crew member (for passengers), and helped young students to get out of the sinking ship while making no success in rescuing her own life. Her story makes me cry again.

Park Ji-Young, a 22-year-old crew, who lost her life while saving others

6. Now the high school of these students is also to blame because it put their students in harm's way. There should have been a careful examination about this ferry trip. In fact, this ferry boat left for the destination several hours late due to the weather condition. By the way, I am sorry to hear that the vice-principal of this high school has hanged himself on a pine tree due to the pressure and guilt he had; he was a leader of this trip and was rescued.

7. Overall, the government's emergency response and rescue efforts are very disappointing. There are lots of worries, inefficiencies, and complaints about this rescue operation. I know nothing is easy in an emergency. But how much can we learn from the past tragedies? The current government's leadership is questioned. There were enough lessons in the past; but do we learn and put them in practice today? My mind sinks again and over again. I keep all affected due to this senseless tragedy in my thoughts and prayers.

8. Conclusion
This tragic accident could have been avoided or many could have been saved. This accident is human error, terribly wrong and morally failing. There is a system failure involving multiple parties: the government (former and the current) and its overseeing agencies that did not do their job properly, the ferry company's importing of an aging ferry and renovating by adding more space and careless management, and unpreparedness of its crew members in an emergency.

*Last-minute text messages sent by students trapped in the sinking ferry:

*memorial place:
photo: courtesy of Newsis


Ask why; a mere obedience or obeisance is not the answer

*For convenient purpose, I paste another blog posting of mine here.

A most recent tragedy of the Korean ferry Sewol has left unforgettable scars on the minds and souls of Korean people, which won't go away easily or anytime soon. This seems an unprecedented case for a total failure of the government and private sectors. More than 470 passengers were on board and most of them were high school students at their teens for their school trip to a remote southern island Jeju. Only 174 passengers exited the boat and were saved. All others were confirmed dead or still missing. Sadly, all things worked together (negatively) to get things worst ever. First of all, this ferry company called Chungjin Haewoon violated several laws and regulations about safety codes (overloading containers and cargo, adding more space by rebuilding the boat, not providing adequate safety training for its crew members, ignoring boat repair requests from its staff, hiring a temporary captain to run the boat on the day, and etc). It is so shameful to hear all these ugly things about the company and its greedy owner as well as other interest groups.

Second, there were no immediate, organized responses of the government to this disaster. Sea police, for example, was so senseless that it did not know what to do. It could save a lot of them if they acted fast enough. There were no adequate manual and saving equipment or personnel. Even emergency control or watch in the sea failed completely.

Third, the crew members (except for service crew such as Park Ji-Young and another man who did not escape the boat but saved other passengers at the risk of their lives) left the boat for their lives without doing anything to evacuate hundreds of passengers, who were told by the boat broadcasting to stay calm in their place. There is a suspicion that the ferry company may have ordered its crew members (captain and others) to sink the boat with passengers inside, in which case she could receive lots of insurance money along with life insurance compensation. This must be investigated. Otherwise, some suggest that the behavior of the crew members are hardly understandable because they had to time to issue an emergency sign before they left the boat.

Actually, if passengers had been told to come out with jackets worn and move to the deck of the boat, they could have been saved. Because of this broadcasting, many students waited in their cabins or rooms even though the boat began to sink. They simply believed in the announcement that says "stay where you are." Even at this dire moment our students had a chat and took pictures and looked very playful. They were acting like they were dying, leaving a few words to their parents. They seemed unaware of their impending deaths. In this dangerous time, they believed that they would be saved because they trusted in the repeated announcement that they stay where they are.

At several points when they heard this same announcement, they said "yes." One student in the room of the boat video-recorded all of this, using his smartphone. This student who took pictures and recorded was found dead and his body was recovered with his smartphone. His father recovered his son's smartphone memory chip and sent it to the news agency. That is how I saw the video and pictures taken at the very moment they got stuck inside. What a painful video this is! Before the ferry was completely submerged, as this video indicates, they had been alive and waited in the boat to be rescued. This makes me utterly sad. These students were too good and followed what they heard: "stay in."

In Korean society, obeisance is highly emphasized, and so some students didn't seem to learn to disagree to or disobey certain things. At a critical time such as that, students may have had to ask: "Why should we stay inside when the boat began to sink? Why should we believe what you said?" I know this seems not easy. Mere obedience can be horrible otherwise. If obeisance is a virtue, so is suspicion.