By Dara Kenigsberg
April 16, 2014 marked a somber day for South Korea. What began as a routine trip to Jeju, a resort island considered to be the Hawaii of Korea, ended in tragedy when the Sewol ferry sank off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, leaving 302 people either dead or missing. 325 of the passengers were students from Danwon High School attending a field trip for school. Just before 9 a.m., an unidentified crew member contacted local maritime traffic control, and asked them to notify the Coast Guard that they were sinking. Within 30 minutes the ferry was already at an angle of 50 degrees, yet they had told the passengers to stay where they were. They did not follow protocol and because of this, many lives were lost that could have been saved.
Captain Moon Ye-shik was at the helm of the first ship to arrive to aid with the rescue. He told CNN, “The ship was listing (badly), 30 to 40 degrees. It was in such a bad condition, anyone would assume evacuation was well underway.” 20 minutes after the first SOS, when Moon and his crew were 200 meters away and ready to deploy life rafts, he radioed with a crewmember on the Sewol and advised him to tell the passengers to escape. According to CNN, “A full ten minutes later the [crewmember] was still asking — ‘if we escape, can they be rescued?’” In emergencies, the captain of the ship should be the one on the radio because he has more experience and knows what to do in these situations. However, the captain was nowhere to be found because he had already escaped, leaving behind in danger all of his passengers.
The captain of the Sewol, Lee Joon-seok, has been charged with abandoning his boat, causing bodily injury, negligence for not seeking rescue from other ships and for violating the country’s marine law, the Rescue and Aid at Sea and in the River Act. 14 other crewmembers have also been arrested and are being held, along with the captain, in Mopko prison. On April 28, South Korean officials arrested three more people on suspicion of destroying evidence. They also raided a Coast Guard office due to the speculation that the first emergency call was mishandled. According to CNN, “Investigators are looking into possible dereliction of duty.”
A teenage boy who died on the ferry had shot a cellphone video of his final minutes. It was recovered with the memory card intact, along with his body and returned to his father, who then turned the clip over to South Korean national TV network JTBC. In it, you can hear the final words of some of the passengers, “Why can’t they tell us what’s going on?” “Wow, it’s tilting a lot. We’re tilting to this side. Can’t move.” “You think I’m really gonna die?” The clip also captured the orders coming through the ferry’s loudspeakers, “Once again, please do not move from your current location,” a voice says. “Absolutely do not move.” ^Ed Note: The confirmed death toll currently stands at 242.