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M/V SEWOL Tragedy off South Korea

Ferries operate around the world, most of the time successfully enough. Here in the Puget Sound area, millions rely on ferries each year. In fact, according to the Washington Department of Transportation, over 75,000 commuters use the ferry system each work day, and vehicles board ferries around 11 million times per year for work and leisure, making our ferry system the largest in the U.S. and the third largest in the world.

Ferry collisions, allisions, and casualties are rare in Puget Sound, but, unfortunately, such incidents are not so uncommon around the world. The latest is a horrible tragedy involving the lives of hundreds of high school students on a field trip, as well as many other people aboard for the usually safe 13.5 hour journey between Incheon and Jeju, South Korea.

This ro-ro (roll on/roll off) ferry, SEWOL, was built in Japan in 1994, and started her life ferrying passengers there as NAMINOUE MARU. She is 481 feet long, 72 feet abeam, with a maximum speed of 22 knots. In 2012, she was bought by a Korean marine company and refitted with more passenger deck space, with increased her maximum capacity to 956 persons. Different sources cite a car capacity ranging between 90 and 200, in addition to space devoted to semi-trucks and TEU containers. SEWOL passed more than one safety and insurance inspection for the new additions and weight increase, was pronounced seaworthy, and was set on the Incheon-Jeju route.

On April 16, there were 476 people known to be on board SEWOL. According to reports, 339 of these people were high school students from Danwon High School in Ansan, which is not too far from Seoul, along with some of their teachers. The rest of the people were passengers on other business, and crew. About 16 miles from shore off the southern tip of South Korea, shortly before 9:00 a.m. KST, in calm weather, SEWOL made a hard turn and began to list. Minutes later, a loud noise reverberated. Whilst most of the passengers obeyed the captain’s instructions to remain in their quarters, SEWOL listed ever farther to port, eventually to a degree which removed all hope of evacuating those passengers. By the time the captain made the call to abandon ship, about an half-hour after that hard turn, the intercom system no longer functioned. Good Samaritans in the area and arriving rescue workers saved as many people as they could find, as the SEWOL beam listed perpendicular to the sea, trapping students and other passengers inside. SEWOL took over three hours to sink completely into seas where SAR divers report visibility to be mere inches in front of their faces.

Captain Lee Joon Seuk is being accused of abandoning ship and leaving passengers behind. In the west, there are comparisons to COSTA CONCORDIA Francesco Schettino’s uncaptainlike behavior. Korean maritime author Ju Hi Chun is quoted as saying, “I don’t know why he abandoned the ship like that,” adding, “Koreans don’t have the view that they have to stay with their ship until the end. It is a different culture from the West.” Nonetheless, Captain Lee was still responsible for everyone on board, and thus was absolutely expected to remain with the vessel in order to conduct the evacuation of passengers, and then evacuate the crew (who also bear some responsibility), not only out of duty, but out of humanity and common sense. From many accounts, the captain and some of the crew were seen leaving the vessel while a majority of passengers were trapped in their cabins. Meanwhile, outside, only two of the 46 lifeboats were successfully deployed (some lifeboats did not inflate) before the listing became too pronounced to deploy more.

As it stands, the captain is being called by many a murderer, and he and the navigation crew continue to be detained for charges of homicide by abandonment and negligence, which carry sentences ranging from a few years to life. The investigation has broadened to include the ferry owners, operating company, and inspection facilities.

Not all of the crew put themselves first. Some remained behind to help. One such crew member was Park Jee Young, 22, who stayed with the vessel to hand out life jackets; she did not don one herself so that there would be enough for others. She distributed the life jackets and helped passengers escape until she perished.

Of the 476 people on board, 174 were rescued, including the captain and some crew. The rest of the people are either confirmed deceased or are missing and presumed deceased. The captain and a few of the crew were quickly arrested and detained, as families and friends of the victims waited in their school gymnasium or at the shore for definitive word on their missing loved ones. The school recently opened for class, but it is more a place of grief now. To add to this already unthinkable tragedy, one naval sailor is said to have died on the way to the scene on April 19, and the vice-principal of the high school, who had been among the rescued, hung himself on April 18 outside the school. On April 27, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong Won announced his resignation in light of the poor initial government response; he will continue to serve until the recovery mission has been completed.

Technically, North Korea and South Korea have been merely in a truce since 1953, but even so, North Korean has sent a message of sympathy: “We express condolences for the missing and dead, including young students, from the sinking of the Sewol.”

The subject of ro-ro safety has come up time and time again all over the world. Ro-ros, if not loaded and ballasted properly, and sometimes even if they are, are prone to shifting vehicle and cargo weight during foul weather or sharp turns. Ro-ros typically don’t have much freeboard and often lack traverse bulkheads (watertight or otherwise), so if the deck becomes awash with water, the free surface effect can take over and make short work of the vessel. You can imagine how much worse it would be if the vessel is overladen.

Other ro-ro sinkings include DON PEDRO, which sunk off Ibiza, Spain, in 2007, and BALTIC ACE, which sunk in 2012 off Rotterdam, Netherlands, and ESTONIA, which sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994. For all this, ro-ros are considered safe under most conditions and continue in wide use, carrying over a billion passengers and millions of vehicles safely to their destinations each year.

That said, ro-ro design is arguably not the safest in naval architecture, so it stands to reason that safety announcements and instructions be conducted at each sailing; that safety jackets and lifeboats are clearly marked and up-do-date; and that well-trained captain and crew are at the ready. The sad thing is, it usually takes heartbreaking loss, as on SEWOL, before protocols are formulated, accepted, and applied. In the meantime, whenever you are on a vessel, although it’s most likely you’re about to have a safe journey, please take the time to know where the life jackets, lifeboats, and exit areas are.

As for SEWOL, the investigation is going full speed and, in time, the complete story will unfold. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by this terrible loss.

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