Sewol Ferry Accident

It’s been a week since the Sewol ferry accident on its way to Jeju, and though I briefly mentioned it in a previous post, this is an event which has rocked the nation far more violently than I’d have imagined. As such, I feel it’s only right to write a proper post on the subject.

As a brief recap for those who haven’t heard, on April 16th, the South Korean ferry, Sewol, rolled on its side, capsized, and sank off the southwest coast of Korea while nearing the end of its 13 hour voyage from Incheon to Jeju Island. It happened very fast – the ship was submerged only two hours after its first distress signal.

Image taken from the Voice of America News article online.

The suddenness of the disaster inevitably meant that not everyone was able to be evacuated. In the beginning, the total number of saved was about 350 out of the 476 passengers. Except that number of saved slowly dwindled to 150; 9 were confirmed dead and the number of missing skyrocketed.

Now, a week later, only 174 people were confirmed recused. 150 are confirmed dead. Hundreds are still missing. The ferry has been underwater for almost a week though, and it went down in an area with strong currents, so the chances of finding the remaining missing are very slim – even with the constant dive teams scouring the wreck.

The suddenness with which the Sewol sank, and a map of its trajectory as well as the treacherous cluster of islands it was navigating around. Photo taken from BBC.

However what has Korea paralyzed with devastation isn’t even so much how few were saved, nor even how few were attempted to be saved (although we’ll get to that in a second), it’s because of who the passengers were: most of them were students – high school students – on a field trip to Jeju Island. Most of them were from the same school.

I mentioned this in a comment on my previous post, but I can’t even comprehend what that school must be like right now. An empty school…the confirmed deaths alone are more than the number of kids that I currently teach. To imagine them all gone in one monumental sweep is truly unthinkable. Somewhere out there is a foreign teacher – or several – like me who have just lost all their students.

Victims mourned through tribute. Photo from NBC News.
Families visit the tribute in their grief. Photo from National Post.

The vice principal of the school committed suicide a couple of days after the accident. He had been on board the vessel but was among the saved. All the victims on board were brought to the nearby island Jindo, which is where he was found, having hanged himself on a tree with his own belt.

His suicide note read that he couldn’t live knowing that he had been saved in place of the many who had been left to drown. It had been him who had originally suggested the trip, and he had been entrusted with the students’ safety during their excursion to Jeju. As such a lot of anger from the families of the deceased, brought down to identify the bodies of their children, was directed at him.

Makeshift refugee camp in a local Jindo gym for the victims and their families. Photo from National Post.

Overcome with grief, he requested that his ashes be scattered over the place where the Sewol sank. His funeral was held on the island in silence.

A vigil being held for the missing. Taken from this article on

But while the bereaved families directed their blame at him, it lies far from his fault.

In fact to return to the subject of why so many students weren’t saved and why the country is in the throes of outraged shock, it seemed the crew of the ferry took a leaf out of Titanic’s book.

While the cause of the initial accident are still unknown, it seems that the ship made a sharp turn and that it punctured its hull while navigating too close to shore. The ferry was transporting some ill-secured heavy cargo at the time, so when the vessel was put off balance, the cargo slid over which is what made the ferry turn on its side and eventually altogether capsize. Because of this, the lifeboats were difficult to access, some of them entirely impossible to reach.

Some of the few lifeboats that were successfully disengaged from the ferry. Photo from Marine Insight.

Exactly what caused this to occur is still very much a mystery. But there are a few other things in the aftermath that are known.

What is known is that the captain had left a third-mate in charge who didn’t know what he was doing at the helm.

What is known is that the first distress signal came from a frightened boy aboard the ship who used his cellphone to call the mainland for help (article from CNN here).

What is known is that after the distress signal went out, the crew told the students not to move from their cabins (read full article on the evacuation handling here).

What is known is that the crew disembarked from the ferry to save themselves, leaving hundreds of high school students and their accompanying teachers still aboard and completely helpless.

What is known is that as the divers retrieve their bodies, most of the victims’ fingers are broken, indicating they were trying desperately to claw their way out and climb the walls of the turning ship before they drowned (article from NBC on this here).

And this is what has South Korea outraged as well as devastated.

Rescue teams to find as many bodies as they can. Photo taken from Reuters.

The crew are all under arrest. President Park Geun-Hye has called their actions “tantamount to murder”, though I don’t know what specifically they’re being charged with yet.

Sewol’s engineer also attempted to hang himself, though he was found in time. He is undergoing investigation in the coming weeks.

The public response to the accident is nothing less than what would be expected from a country that puts community first: hundreds of volunteers have shipped themselves down to Jindo to take care of the victims; divers and South Korean navy seals have been working tirelessly to salvage who and what they can from the wreckage; and donations have been set up around the country to help support the rescue and the families of the deceased.

As the students were in their life jackets and kept in the hallways of the ferry, they had time enough to text, but apparently not to evacuate. The student who texted the first distress message is among the missing. Photo taken from BBC article.

In addition, the government has issued a nationwide ban on all school trips in effect until at least June. This article from the Wall Street Journal outlines it, but essentially they don’t want to take any risks that something like this will happen again.

Now I’m not sure if this is all of Korea too, but at least in Cheongju, in solidarity and out of respect for the tragedy, all in-school activities such as sports days and fairs have been cancelled or postponed until further notice as well. My school was going to have a sports day on May 1st and has been having daily exercise sessions to prepare for it, but now even these school-wide exercise sessions have been cancelled.

Maybe it’s just my callous desensitization to disaster from growing up in a culture that somewhat sensationalizes tragedy, but I’m somewhat awed by the genuine sympathy displayed by the nation. Which of course makes me feel really dismayed at how little tragedies back home seem to impact fellow countrymen in comparison.

Last summer in Lac-Mégantic of the Eastern Townships in Quebec, a train derailed and exploded, destroying a large section of the town, killing 47 people and leaving many injured, homeless, or both.

Lac-Megantic train derailment. Photo taken from CTV News.

For the first few weeks, it was in all the papers. Then it died out – once, it seemed, the press had sucked the subject dry. Granted, the death toll was on a lesser scale of this Korean accident, and I don’t bring this up to say that the Quebec populous wasn’t affected by it, nor to devalue any genuine sympathy directed towards the victims of the accident, but rather to call attention to how back home shit happens next door and after a moment or two of sobering silence, life moves on alarmingly fast.

Incidentally, Lac-Mégantic has been voted Canada’s top news story of 2013. Part of the cynical side of me can’t help but feel this is just because it was the most “exciting” disaster of the year.

In Korea, however, the mood is somber. My coworkers are grim. The head teacher bought everyone ice cream today to bring the morale up.

Maybe it’s just because I’m in a school and everyone sympathizes much more with the drowned students and teachers and feels just one step closer to the accident than the average Korean. But the national response itself speaks volumes. I can say for sure that the Canadian government didn’t step in to make national safety regulations on train cargo; rather, the accident happened in part because of government allowing the safety standards to fall lax in the first place.

Anyway, this is quite a heavy post so I’ll leave it off there. I don’t know how much this is coming up in papers back home, but if not, there’s an array of articles I’ve linked to throughout this post to expand your reading material on the subject.

I hope all my facts are right; I’ve got a lot of information from my co-teacher who’s hearing it from Korean news and the rest from articles online written for international news. No doubt there’ll be updates soon, but for the time being I wanted to just have it all out there.

I’ll leave you with this group shot of the students, hours before the disaster struck. There’s really nothing to do but send best thoughts and wishes and, even though I’m not religious, prayers to their families.

Taken from the Voice of America article here.

4 thoughts on “Sewol Ferry Accident

  1. I pressed the “Like” button but then canceled it. But that, of course, doesn’t have anything to do with the excellent perspective and insight you offer above. In my opinion there has been reasonably solid coverage of this terrible event … but nothing like what you have written. (Maybe there has been, but I haven’t seen it.)

    I think you should consider submitting a somewhat edited version of this to an appropriate Canadian (or U.S.) publication, understanding that you do not want to exploit this nor want someone to think you are trying to do so; instead of simply trying to give an “outsider’s” view of a country responding to a national tragedy.

    The thought had occurred to me before, but until I read the above I wasn’t sure of what position you might be in to offer additional understanding.

    Now I do.


  2. Yes Marta the world has been watching and praying and agonizing, and wishing and sympathizing about the tragic event of the Jeju Ferry capsizing for the past week. There have been prayer vigils here. Every week there is some new epic that the news media runs after because that is what sells newspapers and advertising slots. It does’t mean that people stop caring for victims or their families. That is how we try to survive as human, communal beings. We need to support one another.

    The Lac Megantic incident was due to human failure. The Canadian Railroads have great power.
    I have seen how fast they are allowed to travel through populated areas, not so in the U.S. Then again the government cannot assign an inspector to every train engineer. Your whole salary would have to be paid in taxes to support such a scheme. Incidentally, I was listening to something on the radio just last week and the Lac Megantic tragedy was mentioned, so it is not forgotten, it is now part of history, as is the Jeju Ferry, the similar incident of the cruise ship last year where the Italian captain sailed too close to an island and ripped the ship’s hull, and lives were lost.

    Hopefully progress can be made as we learn from these costly experiences. The families, the community and the nation, and yes even the world has lost so very much with this sad event. Maybe one of these youngsters who died could have been a Nobel Prize Winner in some field.


  3. News coverage here has dwindled. I scour the Internet for the latest developments. The Internet has definitely revolutionized the dissemination of information & the speed at which it travels.

    I don’t know if it’s because you & Andrea are in Korea or if it’s the parent in me (the kind that still cries during Dumbo) or if it’s the sheer unthinkable horror of this tragedy, but this catastrophe has been particularly painful for me. First it was the magnitude of grief suffered by the sea of parents. The texts & the calls from their children whose lives would be doomed. The sight of the children’s bodies as they are brought back one by one with military-like precision. The heartbreaking cries of the parents identifying their bodies. The stoic rescuers who are at the forefront of this inhuman hell. The condition of the corpses betraying the horror these children faced as told by their broken bones or their life vests tied together or their hands held tightly to keep warm.

    At first I couldn’t understand why the crew was preoccupied with the distance of the rescue boats:
    “9:25 a.m. JINDO VTS: The captain should make the final decision and decide quickly whether to evacuate passengers or not.
    9:26 a.m. SEWOL: I’m not talking about that. I asked, if they evacuate now, can they be rescued right away?”
    Given that 22 of the 29 crew members survived & that they were already up on deck, it sounds like they were asking the question for themselves, i.e whether it was time to for THEM to evacuate. They were the first ones ready since they had ordered all the passengers back to their cabins. And therein lies the horror of it all. Now I understand why President Park labelled the crew murderous.


  4. I don’t have any news source except online…and I find a lot of information there…all of it devastating and reducing me to tears. Maybe because my first panic was that you and Andrea would be on the ferry for a tour…the relief I felt knowing you weren’t…then the wash of realization of just what this means for all the other mothers and family and friends…it made it so real. Too real. This tragedy hits harder because it is children and young adults that one always feels protective towards. And no one protected them…well..a few crew did try to shepherd them to safety and gave up their own life vests. (
    But what destroys one is the knowledge that these were the ultimate good, well behaved kids who perished. The ones who were raised to never question authority…ever. To do as you are told. To obey. Those who obeyed died. To be abandoned like that…no one leading you, trying to save you until it was too late. I understand that the water could render one unconscious within 2 hours from the cold, and the current was so strong it could have swept survivors away if they jumped…and that is part of why they were trying to establish the rescue possibilities…of whether it was better to stay on board or evacuate. But they should NEVER have told the children to stay where they were…not to stay in rooms and below decks. Never. Better to deal with the passengers above board then below.
    Our train disaster was human error…a brake that wasn’t correctly applied, causing the train to roll downhill at tremendous speed. It was horrific. But we know accidents happen. We understand that little can prevent everything that occurs. The difference was that once our rail accident occurred there was nothing anyone could do differently. The explosions happened so quickly and intensely. The victims had no hope…no chance. it was immediate. The ferry was not so sudden. There were so many things that could have been done differently. Decisions that would have changed the outcome. And this is the main reason it hurts so much more…the knowledge that it could have been averted on so many levels.
    So much loss…so much humanity…and the pain. All our lives we want what is best for our children…to protect them and help them and see the world unfold for them. To see the future become their inheritance. No parent can absorb this kind of loss.
    You put it so well when you spoke of the emptied school…and the teachers like yourself who lost their classes. That is when it hits…the beginning of comprehension…when you imagine every one of your students lost…without their parents or siblings to hold them through the worst fear they would ever face. Alone. My heart hurts so much. I grieve for this nation.


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