BANGKOK — The unfolding situation in South Korea, where a modern passenger ferry close to shore quickly sank with most of its passengers still onboard, is raising concern about the safety of such vessels and whether the crew responded properly. International maritime accident specialists are expressing confidence that an investigation will determine the tragedy’s cause. Coast guard officials say as of midday Friday, 28 people were confirmed dead, although the death toll is expected to rise sharply. Rescuers have fought strong currents and murky waters in their search for 268 people still missing, while 179 passengers have been rescued.
It is not only bereaved families questioning how so many could be stranded onboard a ship that capsized and sank in relatively shallow water close to a coastal island.
South Korea’s coast guard is still focused on retrieving the bodies of those inside the vessel and those being found floating in the sea. Preliminary information from investigators reveals the five-story tall ferry, on a voyage from Incheon to the resort island of Jeju, made a sudden, sharp turn, some minutes before the first distress call Wednesday morning.
Former ferry boat captain Kit Filor in Australia cautioned against jumping to any conclusions prior to a full investigation of the sinking of the ferry named Sewol.
“The sudden turn may be because somebody on the bridge ordered the course altered suddenly. Or it may have been from an external source, such as a loss of watertight integrity may have caused in itself the un-stability of the ship. What we really need: a thorough investigation, an objective investigation which I know that the Korean authorities will conduct. They are very expert in these sorts of areas,” said Filor.
Filor said ferries like the Sewol that can carry vehicles and so are called roll-on, roll off ferries, or ROROs, have been involved in numerous high-profile accidents with significant loss of life. But Filor, who has taught courses in numerous countries on conducting maritime accident investigations, said the ships themselves are not inherently dangerous.
“Most of the accidents that occur to RORO’s, I think, really occur because of an external force, such as a fire, a collision, a door being left open. Normally, though, if they are operated in reasonable sea conditions and within the regulations that govern them they are a safe form of transport,” said Filor.
The diesel-powered Sewol, built in Japan in 1994, was capable of carrying nearly 1,000 people and dozens of cars and trucks. It sank within two hours of sending its initial distress signal.
More than 300 of the 475 people on board were teenaged students on a school trip. Officials say the third mate was apparently at the wheel when the accident happened. The captain is in police custody.
There are reports from survivors that the captain and most of the crew abandoned ship without even telling passengers to flee for their lives. Those who were on the topmost and lowest decks apparently had the best opportunities to escape. Some of those rescued say an announcement was repeatedly broadcast on the ship telling passengers to stay put, even an hour after the first distress call and less than 90 minutes before the 14-meter high vessel completely capsized.
The incident is likely to become South Korea’s worst maritime disaster in decades.