Sewol Ferry, can we learn from this tragedy?

by Mr Mike

“What happened to the Sewol ferry in Korea?”  I’ve been asked this question by many American friends and I’m sure they’re not the only ones wondering.  We’ve all seen the devastating loss of life from this tragedy and every day the news lowers the missing by raising the body count.  As a newly transplanted expat in Seoul, South Korea this has been a uniquely difficult experience.

I can’t help but compare the disaster response to that of my home country and others around the world.  In recent years we’ve struggled through earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and of course the infamous shootings.  One concrete difference that I see between these is that Sewol seems to have been (at least somewhat) avoidable.  Natural disasters can be devastating with massive loss of life and property.  Lunatics with weapons are scary and unpredictably dangerous, but Sewol has grasped an international audience for one key factor, negligence.

Similarly to 2013’s Costa Concordia the massive ship capsized largely due to human error.  These were not acts of god, weather related or even an astronomical anomaly like Russia’s Chelyabinsk meteor that luckily merely injured nearly 1500 without any fatalities.  Of the 4,252 passengers on Costa Concordia 32 poor souls lost their life.  Captain Schettino’s actions caused the ship to run aground and eventually sink.  He initiated an evacuation but left shortly after.  Still, he managed to save all but 32 and faces up to 20 years in prison for this loss of life.  So what happened differently with the Korean Sewol ferry who had nearly a tenth of the people on board at 476?

Sewol’s Captain, Lee Joon-seok left the helm under supervision of his third mate.  One who has at times been referred to as a “junior mate.”  Either from inexperience at the wheel or rough seas the ferry turned too sharply, cargo shifted and we’ve all seen the dramatic result.  Within minutes they radioed a distress call and Korea’s coast guard responded minutes later advising an evacuation.

Evacuation didn’t happen.  Who knows the real reason why; I suspect “shame” had a factor but the radio correspondence leaves us all puzzled.  The only question Sewol seemed to have was whether or not their passengers be picked up immediately.  Without a straightforward answer no evacuation was given and only 1 of the 46 lifeboats launched.  Who was on board?  Captain Lee Joon-seok.

20 minutes later first responder Captain Moon Ye-shik arrived on the Doola Ace to a frightful sight.  A sinking ship without lifeboats or people in the water.  476 on board and a current death toll at 189 is expected to rise to 302.

Those in charge of Sewol insisted that all passengers stay put in their cabins in spite of as much as a 60 degree roll and massive flooding.  I can’t help but wonder if the lack of rebellion at this idiotic order has something to do with Korean culture.  Its just a guess but I can’t imagine a boat full of Europeans or Americans quickly sinking and everyone patiently waiting in their cabins.

Koreans have a habit of doing everything possible to avoid confrontation.  They also hold immense respect for their elders/superiors.  These cultural differences combined with the crew’s response (or lack there of) made a bad situation worse.  Everyone on board put full trust into the 69 year old captain (who was resting in his cabin at the time of the incident).  By the time a handful of crew realized what was happening and the evacuation order finally came it was too late for most.

Everyone on board Sewol stayed put.  They obeyed their captain even as he abandoned ship.  News reports have come out with conversations between some of the 302 scared students on board.  Some tried to joke about the situation unable to grasp the severity, others told their family that they loved them asking “am I going to die?”

American students are subject to numerous emergency drills every year might have reacted differently.  As a teacher in New Jersey I took part in monthly emergency drills; as the students get older it is clear that they have some understanding of how to act in a true emergency.  These students grow up to work in businesses and even on board ships; as a result they are better equipped to handle an emergency when it does in fact arise.

Since moving to Korea as an English teacher I haven’t done a single emergency drill.  None of the English teachers I’ve met have ever done a fire drill.  The only emergency drill I’ve heard of is affectionately dubbed the “Armageddon Siren” in case North Korea invades.  Everyone knows that North Korea is a huge threat, in fact we all are all too aware of the North’s military capabilities and how much firepower is pointing in our direction.  When I asked my first Korean friends & coworkers “what is the plan if there is an attack.”  They casually responded with “we will all die.”  I guess that explains my students lackadaisical reaction to my first “Armageddon Alarm.”

I have also witnessed some of the deepest sorrow a city and country can exhibit for a tragedy. Schools across the country are in mourning, field trips have been indefinitely canceled, the Vice Principal of the Ansan school hung himself after outliving hundreds of his students and Korea’s Prime Minister resigned over the incident.  You can’t walk more than a few blocks in Seoul without finding yellow Sewol ribbons tied to trees and every weekend Koreans are praying for the victims.  Earlier today I had a handful of students tell me they were going to port cities to pray for Sewol and we had a sorrowful but enlightening discussion.  I for one will be discussing emergency procedures with them in our next class.  Some might see these as extreme reactions but I hope that the reaction doesn’t dwindle.

I like to think I’m an optimist.  I rarely find myself downtrodden or depressed and always look for the silver lining.  Maybe you read my stories about the hogwon nightmare I endured, maybe you didn’t.  The hopeful silver lining I look for is for Korea can learn the importance of emergency preparedness and independent critical thinking.

Koreans should continue to hold the elderly with respect but perhaps this tragedy will inspire more of the younger generation to like Park Ji-Young to be one of Mr. Rogers helpers.  “When [Mr. Rogers] was a boy [he] would see scary things in the news, [his] mother would say to [him], “Look for the helpers, you will always find people helping.”  Park Ji-Young, thank you for being a helper!  I’m sure there were others and it is because of these few that 179 people managed to survive.  The quick thinking of these few crew members may hopefully spurn a new wave of Koreans ready to act in spite of their elder’s advice.

There will hopefully be more good to come out of this horrendous situation with new technology and standards coming onto the playing field.  I hope that it doesn’t end there.  I know that Korea will never forget this catastrophe and my heart is with the families of those who lost loved ones aboard Sewol.  My heart goes out for those who lost loved ones aboard Sewol and I continue to thank individuals like Park Ji-Young for acting with courage and bravery in spite of adversity.  You have showed the strength that Koreans possess and it is people like her that we should remember.

Mr Mike

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Anonymous April 30, 2014 - 8:57 pm

That’s incredibly sad, i can’t even imagine the pain and thank you for writing this piece because i haven’t heard of this, i should watch the news more. I’m at a loss of words due to cultural differences. I hope your statements about emergency preparedness will increase there.

Korean Teacher’s Day | Live, Learn, Travel, Teach May 15, 2014 - 5:02 pm

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