HONG, KONG/MOKPO SOUTH KOREA – 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 in Italy spurred a global campaign to improve passenger security.
As with the Concordia, authorities say the Sewol’s passengers were told to remain below deck even as the ship began taking on water, the captain abandoned ship while the rescue was in progress and life rafts were scarce.
The Concordia accident prompted amendments to the main international treaty on maritime safety, requiring mandatory evacuation drills, better access to life rafts and new rules on voyage planning. The treaty is applied only to international shipping, and different classes of passenger ships have varying rules, limited its effect in improving passenger safety amid the chaos during an emergency.”This accident was caused because safety measures weren’t in place,” said Park Moo-hyun, an analyst at E*Trade Securities Korea.
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. It is up to treaty members whether to apply the rules to domestic shipping.
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 communications and course changes. South Korea did not apply that regulation to the 6,852-ton Sewol, which regularly made a 13½-hour trip between Incheon and Jeju Island, because it operated in only South Korean waters.
The cause of the sinking remains unknown. South Korean officials said the accident happened at a point where the ferry had to make a turn. Prosecutor Park Jae-eok said investigators were looking at whether the third mate, a 26-year-old with a year of experience steering ships, had ordered a turn whose degree was so sharp that it caused the ship to list.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed his ministers Friday to be ready to send rescue teams or provide other support in the event that Seoul requests help in rescue operations, a senior government official said.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said the Maritime Self-Defense Force is preparing to dispatch minesweepers and divers from bases near the Tsushima Strait, which lies between South Korea and Japan.
Rescue divers are seeking to penetrate the Sewol in hope that some of the almost 300 missing might be alive, trapped in air pockets. In the case of the Concordia, a crew member was pulled from the ship 36 hours after it capsized.
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 boats on one side and complicated efforts to release them on the other.
The Sewol had 44 self-inflating 25-person life rafts stored on the main deck. The speed at which the ship 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.
Under South Korean regulations, the ship was not required to have larger lifeboats that hang off the side of the vessel because it was only traveling in coastal waters.
With 28 of the ship’s 475 passengers and crew members confirmed dead and about 270 missing, compared to 179 survivors, the scale of the human toll of the Sewol sinking is one of the starkest differences with the Concordia. Of the more than 4,200 people on board the Concordia, only 32 died because the ship never fully sank and went down more slowly than the Sewol.