MV Sewol ferry


Jun 15, 2021
South Korea has a history of maritime accidents due to overloaded and badly secured loads. The MV Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014 was just the latest of these. This sinking was particularly tragic since the 304 deaths included many young people.

It reads like a case study in everything that can go wrong with modifying and operating a ship, as well as the failing of institutions required to oversee this process. The MV Sewol sunk in around two and a half hours with 68% of those on board killed. These are similar figures to the Titanic, despite the availability of modern technology and other ships being relatively nearby. However, in this case the ship capsized, which substantially complicated any rescue attempt.

The ferry was eighteen years old when purchased from Japan. It was then remodelled to carry more passengers and facilities. The additional weight shifted its centre of gravity upwards, which should have been countered by reducing cargo and increasing ballast to retain stability. In practice, it continued to carry similar levels of cargo whilst the ballast was reduced so the load line on the hull would appear the same. Both crew-members and dock-workers reported on the instability of the ship, the latter also complaining they weren't being paid for the extra cargo which wasn't being recorded. To make matters worse, the job of securing cargo was left to an unlicensed company.

The ships final voyage was delayed by fog, so the Captain decided to take a short cut through a treacherous strait with strong tides and currents. However, instead of supervising this part of the journey as required by law, he decided to take a break, leaving it to an inexperienced 3rd navigating officer already banned by Port authorities. To make matters worse, there was a known problem with the steering gear which was unresponsive. During a tight turn in the straight, some poorly secured containers fell toward the port side, adding to the instability, which wasn't countered due to the low ballast, overloading and poor design remodelling. Consequently, the ferry listed more rapidly than usual, turned on its side, and sank in around two and a half hours.

The 'evacuation and rescue' attempt was just as inept and shocking. The Captain had failed to inspect on-board life-saving appliances such as life rafts or conduct safety education and emergency training for his crew members. Only one of the 44 life rafts was automatically released during the incident. Passengers were told to remain in their cabins as frequently as seven times, but the Captain and several crew members abandoned the ferry as it sank. The Crew failed to take the advice of the Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) Centre to prepare the passengers for evacuation, although VTS were blamed for not issuing firmer instructions and leaving critical decisions up to the Captain. The first emergency call came from one of the many young students aboard, who also found it difficult to evacuate due to illegal design changes making the escape routes unclear. Fishing vessels arrived on the scene around one hour after the first distress call, and saved around half of those finally rescued. The official rescuers were delayed due to a disagreement of who was responsible and a non-local service being contacted. When they finally arrived, they didn't have ropes and climbing equipment, so they focused on rescuing a relatively small number of passengers visible and floating in the sea who had managed to escaped from the ferry by themselves.

According to the authors of this report, produced by Korean and British academics, there were more fundamental underlying factors which led to the disaster, such as the ferry company’s priority on short-term profit and employment of low-paid contract workers. The company also submitted falsified documentation and was involved in the illegal flows of money to the owners family. The Incheon Regional Maritime Affairs & Port Administration and the Korean Register of Shipping were also at fault since they wrongly approved the application of the Sewol’s remodelling. The latter was a private company funded by the marine industry, so there was a built-in conflict of interest. At a governmental level, the report found failings of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, loopholes in ship remodelling related laws and Korea’s social environment with wide-spread inappropriate patronage in high positions in the government-affiliated or supporting organisations. The economic model of neo-liberalism that prizes economic growth and profits above the welfare of citizens was also criticised.

However, the Korean judiciary was uncompromising in demanding retribution against individuals. Criminal charges were brought against 399 personnel in all, with 154 of them being imprisoned & calls for the death penalty on some of the major figures including the Ships Captain, who eventually received a life sentence. The owner of the ferry operator went on the run, and was later found dead, whilst the Prime Minister resigned, and the South Korean President was eventually impeached, partly due to her lacklustre response.

Stephen Carey

Apr 25, 2016
That's a catalogue of disaster which echoes the various Philippines ferry sinkings and dreadful loss of life from the likes of Doña Paz. That company - Sulpicio Lines - paid out derisory compensation to survivors' families and just got out of the passenger market scot -free. They are now "Span Asia" and purely feeder containers - I see their yellow ships alongside in Davao Gulf regularly. Sulpicio has blood on his hands and I'm not sure how he lives with that other than washing his hands of any culpability...
... and more - these are just the "big ones"