Sewol ferry tragedy: Signs of hope despite incompetence at every level
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Sewol ferry tragedy: Signs of hope despite incompetence at every level

By Joseph Kim in Jindo & Rosyn Park in Seoul 

Over a week has passed since the sinking of the Sewol ferry off South Korea’s coast last Wednesday. The details of the disaster are still being investigated with underlying facts still unknown. Initially, investigators said the ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) had logs showing the ferry making a sharp turn at 8.48am, causing it to capsize. Reports now, however, suggest that this is may not be the whole picture with the turn being more of a “J” shape and perhaps not the root cause of incident.

Currently 11 out of the 15 surviving crewmembers of Sewol are being charged with negligent homicide. Among them includes Lee Joon-seok, the captain who was in charge of the Sewol at the time of the accident, who faces criminal charges of manslaughter with a punishment of lifetime imprisonment. Though the investigation has not closed, a majority hold the captain responsible for the incident with records showing he was among the first to be rescued, not in uniform (unusual for a ship’s captain), and admittedly in his room at the time of the events leading up the ship’s capsizing.

The Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) as well as the National Tax Service (NTS) have also joined the probe to uncover key details of this case. Their responsibility will be to look into the accounts of the ferry’s owner Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd. and any affiliated companies. Last week, the company’s chief executive Kim Han-sik apologized saying, “I have committed a sin punishable by death. I really have no words. I am sorry. I am sorry. I have no words.” Since then, new information has surfaced suggesting corruption and faulty management could have played a part in the ship’s sinking.

So far, the ferry’s speed and heavy load are known to be contributing factors to the disaster. According to investigation reports, however, Sewol failed to use proper equipment to store the cargo. In addition, Chonghaejin bought the Sewol from Japan in a condition that required fixing and, later, renovations to expand its passenger and cargo capacity. Among these should have been balance readjustments, mandatory to carry heavy loads. But the FSS and NTS are probing whether Chonghaejin ignored passenger safety to cut costs to expand their profit margins.

In recent years, the company has bounced back from the brink of bankruptcy. Many believe that this is primarily due to the company’s decision to transport commercial cargo. Many passengers heard a loud “bang” before the ship capsized, which experts believe was cargo that was not properly locked down hitting the walls of the ship. With the heavy loads not properly stored, investigations into the balance realignments could reveal crucial information that could possibly convict the company of neglecting the lives of their passengers for money.

Negligence, however, is what has left all of South Korea heartbroken, truly asking, “What if.” Over 100 bodies have been found dead in the last five days and still more than 100 are unaccounted for. Beyond the captain and crew of the Sewol, the country is also questioning the government’s urgency. “What if they had hurried the rescue mission, couldn’t those children have survived?” a young mother surnamed Kim earnestly asks. “Why are all the bodies showing up now? Doesn’t that mean those kids could have been alive?”

This anger is also pointed at local media, whose intentions have been disputed in covering this tragedy to the point of being labeled “unethical” in their quest to report the truth.

When emotions are still open and raw, looking at who is to blame and how and why this accident came to be extends far beyond the ill-fated ferry’s control room.

Prosecutors and police have swiftly widened the scope of their investigation, issuing travel bans, arrest warrants, and pinning down charges. At the same time, the government has been scrambling to handle the situation from the top down. President Park Geun-hye vowed on Monday to hold all related parties accountable for the lack of oversight that contributed to this tragedy. But it was followed with more erroneous government data, bungled attempts to form a coordinated central command and no results of survivors.

During the critical minutes after the ship had capsized, emergency rescue efforts were slow and scant; officials were vague with information and answers and the overarching ministries unprepared to handle such sudden devastation. Many families of the passengers, most of them parents of the 325 Danwon High School students aboard the ferry on a field trip to the island of Jeju, desperately waited for authorities to reassure them. Leadership was forced into action by demanding families, waiting through desperate hours, which turned into days, of hoping that more would be saved.

Search and rescue operations have quietly transitioned into recovery work. Families of those still missing continue to cling to hope, but no longer hold the same sense of quiet or complacent faith in their government they once did. It is not the same for a nation of people who have been gripped by sadness and grief over the unexplainable loss of so many lives. Accountability and responsibility will no doubt continue to play a big part in any type of healing process that is to follow.


A man reads messages showing signs of hope for the safe return of passengers of the sunken Sewol ferry in Ansan, south of Seoul, South Korea, Thursday. Pic: AP.

Thousands of yellow ribbons have sprung up across the country. They are a sign of hope in support of the missing victims and their families. Started by a local university club, the small campus campaign served as a reminder to not lose hope. The campaign spread rapidly, going viral before physical yellow ribbons were being hung in different cities. Now, it symbolizes much more than longing for a miracle, it represents an entire nation’s intent to not lose faith during such dark times – almost a promise to never let such a tragedy happen again.

On the island of Jindo, hand-made signs have sprung up outside the gymnasium that has temporarily sheltered the hundreds of family members whose loved ones were on board the ferry. They were made hastily—pen to cardboard and taped around the edges. Written by siblings of the many highschoolers who remain underwater, they too are covered with words of hope. They express heartfelt apologies, pledges that the future will be different, one with change and accountability. “I will not become an adult that says things are out of my control,” asserts the poster, “That this disastrous accident was inevitable. That because of incompetence it was inevitable. That because their work is to be a reporter or a policeman, their actions are inevitable. Our country is South Korea and so it was inevitable.”