Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Contradictions Surrounding Horrific Freight and Passenger Disaster Continue Four Years On

Enquiry Result is an Inconclusive Fudge
Shipping News Feature
SOUTH KOREA – The horrific tale of the Sewol, the freight and passenger ferry which foundered in April 2014 with the loss of over 300 lives, has taken another turn this week with the conclusion of the lengthy investigation into the disaster, ending with no conclusive findings and speculating that the vessel may have struck an underwater object, such as a semi-submerged shipping container amongst other diverse possibilities. In fact the investigation appears to have been a complete waste of time as no firm conclusions whatsoever have been arrived at.

The case of the Sewol is one which had, and indeed still has, ongoing ramifications. The sad tale of the head teacher who hanged himself, unable to live with the fact that so many of his students perished on a trip he himself had organised. The apparent suicide of the former chairman of the operators, Chonghaejin Marine, followed later. At least seven divers and emergency staff also died during rescue and salvage attempts.

The berating of the coast guard at the time by then President Park Geun-hye did not deflect criticism from the government, with prime minister Jung Hong-won accepting responsibility and resigning, whilst Park’s own response led to a collapse of her popularity and moves to replace her. In April this year she was sentenced to 24 years imprisonment after her impeachment on a variety of charges.

The conclusions drawn by the latest investigation will not satisfy anyone with an interest in this landmark case. The list of possible conclusions mean that there is no actual cause for the incident spotlighted. Initially the Korean coast guard, which refused some initial offers of assistance from the US and Japanese naval interests, said the accident was as a result of a ‘number of sharp turns’. The coast guard was subsequently subject to a complete reform with responsibilities transferred to the Ministry of Public Safety.

The captain, a man of many years’ experience, was in charge of a vessel which had been adapted to carry more passengers, shifting the centre of gravity upward. He replaced the regular captain who had criticised the changes saying the vessel was less stable. The cargo carrying capacity had been increased but the new upper weight limit ignored on the final voyage with over 2,100 tonnes of freight, including 185 vehicles, rather than the allowed 967 tonnes. The cargo was also said to have been insufficiently restrained and only 500 or so tonnes of ballast water retained when she should have carried over 2,000 tonnes.

The case resulted in a slew of convictions, from a life sentence for the captain who allegedly deserted the sinking ship to a variety of terms of imprisonment up to 12 years for 14 other crew members after passengers were told to stay in their cabins even as the vessel went down. Seven shipping executives were also convicted and imprisoned for up to ten years.

Despite the fact that the ferry was eventually recovered and the full investigation launched, the eight person panel failed to identify any direct cause with a fudged verdict saying it could have been problems with the ship, handling or another unknown problem with even the suggestions that a submarine might have been involved. The result will be looked at with scorn by those around the globe who have watched blame being attributed to anyone considered possibly at fault, whilst believing the true problem is the lack of due diligence by the regulatory authorities to ensure that ship, crew and management are fit for purpose.

Photo: The mummified corpse of the Sewol lies on its side on the dock at Mokpo.