The sinking of the Sewol ferry off South Korea raises new concerns about ship safety more than two years after the capsizing of the Costa Concordia ocean liner spurred a global campaign to improve passenger security.
The sight of terrified passengers being plucked from the side of the listing ferry stirred memories from January 2012 of the Concordia lying on its side near Giglio Island, off the western coast of Italy. As with the Concordia, authorities say the Sewol’s captain abandoned ship while the rescue was still in progress, passengers were told to remain below deck even as the ship began taking on water and life rafts were scarce.
“Passengers are usually advised to remain on a ship because it has been designed to remain stable even when badly damaged in one part of the hull,” said Richard Clayton, chief maritime analyst at IHS Maritime in London. “The crew advised this course of action before the extent of the damage was known. With hindsight, the crew should have reconsidered their advice as the ship began to list heavily.”
The Concordia accident prompted amendments to the main international treaty on maritime safety that required mandatory evacuation drills, better access to life rafts and new rules on voyage planning. The fact the treaty is applied only to international shipping and varying rules for different classes of passenger ships have limited its effect in shoring up passenger safety amid the chaos during an emergency situation.
“This accident was caused because safety measures weren’t in place,” said Park Moo Hyun, an analyst at E*Trade Securities Korea in Seoul.
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which is administered by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization, regulates everything from hull types to the placement of life jackets. The treaty counts 170 countries as signatories and it’s up to treaty members whether to apply the rules to domestic shipping industries.
The Sewol sinking illustrates the IMO’s limitations. The treaty requires that all cruise ships and international ferries of more than 3,000 tons have a voyage data recorder — a naval black box — to record all the ship’s communication and course changes. South Korea didn’t apply that regulation to the 6,825-ton Sewol, which regularly made the 13.5-hour trip between Incheon and Jeju island, because it operates in Korean not international waters, said Coast Guard Director General Ko Myung. The cause of the sinking remains unknown.
“We can get more information about the communications at the ship only after taking it to the surface,” he said.
For domestic ferries such as the Sewol, South Korea applies the Ships Safety Act, its own set of rules that are based on U.N. standards, said an official at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries who asked not to be named citing policy.
Rescue divers are seeking to penetrate the 479-foot Sewol in hopes that some of the almost 300 missing might be alive and trapped in possible air pockets. In the case of the Concordia, a crew member was pulled from the ship 36 hours after it capsized, though considerably more of the ship remained above water than the Sewol.
In both accidents rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of life crafts being deployed. For the Costa Concordia, the angle of the ship made it impossible to lower lifeboats on one side and complicated efforts to release them on the other.
The Sewol had 44 self-inflating 25-person life rafts stored in cases on the main deck, said Kim Sung Jae, an official at South Korea’s Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries. The speed at which the ship capsized — it sank less than three hours after its first distress signal — may have prevented the rafts from inflating. Local press reported that only two of the rafts were seen after the boat went down.
‘Tilted 90 Degrees’
“The ship quickly tilted to 90 degrees,” the mother of An Min Soo, a student who survived the accident by jumping into the sea with a teacher and friends, said in a phone interview. “He was in the water for five minutes and was transported to a lifeboat. He said there were announcements but he couldn’t hear them because the scene was too chaotic with noise.”
Under South Korean regulations the ship wasn’t required to have larger lifeboats that hang off the side of the vessel because it was only traveling in coastal waters, Kim said.
With 25 of the ship’s 475 passengers and crew confirmed dead and 271 missing, the scale of the human toll of the Sewol sinking is one of the starkest differences with the Concordia. In the case of the Italian cruise ship, 32 people died of the more than 4,200 people on board as the Concordia never fully sank and went down more slowly than the Sewol.
Car-carrying ferries are prone to rapid sinking when they take on water. This type of ferry, known as a ro-ro because vehicles can be rolled on and off, feature wide, open cargo decks, limiting the ability to install the kind of water-tight compartments that might slow the intake of water should the hull get pierced.
“The ships have very different designs. The cruise ship has several watertight sections to provide safety if one or two sections are breached and fill with water,” Clayton said. “A passenger roll-on/roll-off ferry has a large vehicle deck with doors at one or both ends. If water gets into this space, the ship immediately becomes unstable and is in danger of capsizing.”
In 1994 more than 800 people were killed when a ro-ro called the Estonia went down in the Baltic Sea, sinking in less than half an hour after its cargo door was ripped off in heavy seas. That accident also prompted changes to the treaty meant to phase out ships built to a one-compartment design.
The Sewol would likely have been exempt from that safety measure as well because it stayed in national waters.
The grimmest comparison between the two accidents may prove to be the difficulty in recovering the remains of any victims trapped in the Sewol. The bodies of the last two missing Concordia passengers weren’t recovered until nine months after the accident, when the 114,500-ton ship was righted from where it came to rest in the shallow water off the vacation island of Giglio.
The Sewol may be South Korea’s biggest ferry disaster since 1970, when the sinking of the Namyoung led to 323 fatalities. As in the case of the Concordia and Sewol, the captain of the Namyoung was among the survivors. He was charged with professional negligence and initially sentenced to death before a higher court overturned the sentence, according to the Court of Korea.
With assistance from Chris Cooper in Tokyo, Cynthia Kim, Eunkyung Seo and Rose Kim in Seoul and Kyunghee Park in Singapore. To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Davis in Hong Kong at [email protected] To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brian Fowler at [email protected]