▲ Divers were hampered in reaching the vessel by fast currents and murky waters (above). The Sewol (inset) is owned by Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd. Photos courtesy Korea Coast Guard
As of 9 a.m. April 28, 188 people were confirmed dead after the Wednesday, April 16 sinking of the Jeju-bound Sewol ferry in waters southwest of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province. The boat had set off from Incheon at around 9 p.m. on Tuesday night and was 85 k.m. from its destination.
The vessel apparently made a sharp turn at around 9 a.m. which led to containers falling overboard and, investigators suspect, dislodging cargo below deck leading to listing. Investigations are continuing. The ship had sunk by 11:20 and only part of the hull remained above water by 14:37.
476 passengers, including 325 Danwon High School students and 14 teachers.
174 rescued, including 75 students, three teachers, 15 crew and 81 others.
188 dead, many as yet unidentified.
114 remain missing.
*One survivor, the Danwon vice-principal, was reported dead, suspected suicide, on April 18. See below.
**A navy sailor from Jeju Island joining in the rescue effort died in an unrelated incident on April 20. See below.
Timeline of the Sewol disaster
21:00 Sewol departs Incheon after 2.5-hour delay due to fog.
8:48 Sewol makes a sudden turn southwest of Gwanmaedo island, Jodo-myeon, Jindo-gun, South Jeolla Province. Loud bangs heard by passengers.
8:52 Student calls South Jeolla Province Fire Department to say the Sewol is sinking
8:55 Sewol sends out a distress signal
9:04 Government sends navy and helicopters to the scene.
9:10 Sewol tells Jindo Vessel Traffic Services Center that evacuation is not possible as people cannot move due to listing
9:10 - 11:00 Helicopter and boat res-cues conducted as vessel overturns and drifts
11:20 Ship sinks 2 hours 20 minutes after first report
14:37 Only the bow remains above water
Sources: OhMyNews, Yonhap News, Associated Press.
Cause of the sinking
Coast guards told Yonhap that passen-gers heard a “big thumping sound” before the vessel began to list just before 9 a.m. A government official quoted by Yonhap stated the ferry slowed down before making a turn at 8:48 a.m., possibly avoiding an obstacle. The sharp turn threw containers from the deck and possibly dislodged cargo below deck, destabilising the ship and causing listing.
In a transcript of communications between Jindo VTS and the Sewol, at 9:10 a.m. a crew member said that passengers could not move due to listing. Despite Jindo VTS urging an evacuation, the Sewol crew said that they had no way of telling passengers.
Sewol crew: “It’s tilted more than 50 degrees to the left and it’s impossible for people to move either left or right. Crew members have asked [passengers] to wear life jackets and stand by. ... But actually it’s impossible to check if they’re wearing them or not. The crew members ... cannot move. Please come quickly.”
As the first responders arrived, footage showed passengers being lifted out of the upturned boat and being put on rescue and fishing vessels. Families were outraged after the captain was among the first to board a rescue boat to safety and lifeboats remained unused.
Danwon High School passengers
Some 325 Danwon High School students and 14 teachers were aboard the ship on a school trip to Jeju Island. The students were dressed in school uniforms for the four-day trip, part of an annual tradition before preparations for college entrance exams next year. They were due to fly home on Friday, April 18.
One of the survivors was school vice-principal, Kang Min-gyu who was found dead in a suspected suicide on April 18, apparently ridden with guilt for the students feared drowned. The first funerals were held on Sunday, April 20.
▲ Rescuers used flares to light the night rescue as they fought against time to reach the hundreds of passengers still missing. Photo courtesyJeju Special Self-Governing Province
The rescue effort
Commercial fishing vessels were the first to respond around 9 a.m. and support was then received from army, navy, police and fire services. By Tuesday, April 22, a total of 212 boats, 34 aircraft and some 550 personnel were mobilized.
Poor visibility and strong currents meant divers couldn’t enter the vessel until 11:48 p.m. on Saturday, April 19, three days after the sinking. No signs of life were found and the first bodies were removed from inside the vessel in the early hours of Sunday, April 20. By Wednesday, April 23, divers had reached the cafeteria, where most of the students were thought to be located, with no signs of life.
Although cranes moved into location by Wednesday, a government official said, “the sunken ship will be salvaged only after the last missing person is found" due to reluctance to give up hope on finding survivors.
Experts reported that people can survive in air pockets for 72 hours and families retained hope for a miracle. However, hopes faded as officials reported that no air pockets were found in areas where passengers were hoped to be, “even after the rescue team intensively searched the third and fourth decks.”
The difficult conditions also led to the withdrawal of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and robots assisting in the rescue due to the strong tidal currents.
Criticism of Sewol crew and rescue effort
Families and relatives of the missing were housed at a Jindo gymnasium, anxiously awaiting news of survivors. They expressed anger at the slow response as it was more than five days before divers entered the vessel and recovered the first bodies. Families tried to march on the Blue House on Sunday, April 20, but were turned back by police.
The Sewol crew has been criticized as reports suggest passengers were told to remain in their rooms as the ship listed. An Associated Press transcript of a conversation between Jindo VTS and the Sewol suggests that the crew was indecisive and unable to issue an effective evacuation call. When asked to check how much water was aboard, a crew member said at 9:18 a.m.:
“That cannot be checked either... I can’t move even one step, left or right, on the bridge, so I’m holding the wall, barely standing.”
As local fishing vessels approached to help in the rescue at 9:37 a.m. Jindo VTS asked about the status of the evacuation. “I did broadcast, but it’s impossible to move even to the left side,” a crew mem-ber responded.
Captain Lee Joon-seok was one of the first to leave the ship and defended his actions in not ordering an evacuation earlier.
“At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry ... they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” Yonhap reported Lee as saying. “The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time.”
Captain Lee was arrested on April 20, along with third mate, 25-year-old Park Han-kyul. It emerged that Park was steering the vessel while the captain was in his private cabin. Helmsman Cho Joon-ki, 55, has also been arrested.
Senior prosecutor Yang Jung-jin told reporters that the third mate had only six-months experience and would not have been steering the vessel in an area of fast currents and clustered islands had the ship left on schedule. Her shift should have coincided with open water.
Reuters reported that handing over the helm was normal practise on the route; however, in tough-to-navigate waters the captain must remain on the bridge. Lee faces five charges: abandoning his boat, negligence, causing bodily injury, not seeking rescue from other ships and violating “seamen’s law,” YTN reported.
“The captain and two crew members abandoned the ship and didn’t do what they were supposed to do. They should have also sailed more carefully without making sharp turns,” said Prosecutor Lee Bong-chang.
▲ After the dramatic footage of the first day when passengers and crew were rescued, there were no further survivors found from the Sewol, prompting criticism of the rescue effort from families of the missing and deceased. Photo courtesy Korea Coast Guard
The Sewol and Chonghaejin Marine Co.
Yonhap reports that the 6,825-ton 146-meter long Sewol of Chonghaejin Marine Co. had a maximum cruising speed of 21 knots. It was built in 1994 in Japan and had a 921-person capacity. It was designed to carry 150 vehicles, yet it emerged on April 22 that it was carrying up to three times its recommended load.
The 425-k.m. Incheon-Jeju route takes around 13.5 hours and the the Sewol made three round trips per week, departing Incheon on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Reuters reports that Chonghaejin operates five ships and published oper-ating losses of 785 million won last year. The company’s offices and its affiliates’ offices were raided on April 23 by Incheon District Prosecutors’ Office investigators. The Korean Register of Shipping, which issues marine safety certificates on behalf of the government, passed the Sewol as safe in February and is also under investigation.
Jeju survivors and missing
A total of 32 Jeju residents were aboard the Sewol with 28 rescued (seven Jeju citizens and 21 unregistered residents) and one Jeju resident, Han (22), confirmed dead on April 23. Three Jeju residents remained missing on April 25, two adults and a child. One Jeju resident survivor, Kim Dong-su, spoke of saving other passengers before being saved himself on April 16.
“I saved about ten but I am so sorry that I can’t save more. I am in such pain that I cannot say anymore.”
Han was traveling to Jeju with her husband, Gwon (52), son (5) and daughter (6). Only her daughter survived the sinking after she was given a life jacket by her brother, with her son and husband remaining missing.
The family was moving to Jeju to start a new life after growing tired of life in Seoul. Tragically, Gwon had originally bought a ticket for April 14, but changed it at the last minute. “Every time I talk of him, suddenly my heart is heavy,” a family friend told Jeju Sori.
The Jeju vessels Samda and Yeongju were sent by the provincial government to assist in the rescue effort along with the director of Fisheries and director of the Fire Department. Survivors were also sent 200 boxes of tangerines and 11.5 tons of Samdasoo water.
In further sad news for the province, a Seogwipo man serving in the navy died on April 20 after falling into a coma on April 16. Yoon D.H. was injured while serving aboard the Daejoyeong in an accident not directly related to the rescue effort.
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