SEOUL – In the same narrow waterways where more than 300 people died this spring aboard the ferry Sewol, another ship owned by the same company crashed into an oil tanker 11 years earlier. The ferry’s captain had chosen the difficult water path to cut a mere 7 miles from its journey.
It was among five crashes, from 2003 to 2011, that government investigators blamed mostly on sailors of Chonghaejin Marine Co. ferries. Three of the incidents occurred within a 12-month span, and after those occurred, a government investigator chided the company for failing to make safety reforms.
None of the crashes caused fatalities, but together, some experts say, they were reason enough for regulators to suspend or even revoke the company’s license. That never happened, and in fact Chonghaejin was allowed to expand by adding the Sewol to its fleet last year.
Chonghaejin’s punishment for those five failures: two one-month suspensions for sailors, three verbal warnings to captains, one verbal warning to the company and a fine of 7.5 million won ($7,400). The biggest fine that can be issued in ferry-safety cases is just 30 million won ($29,400).
The Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal, an arm of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries that serves as a maritime court, recommended safety changes to the company as well, but they were nonbinding.
After the 2003 oil tanker crash, the tribunal asked that Chonghaejin stop using the Maenggol Channel, but the shortcut saved the company money on fuel. The Sewol sank in the same channel, about 16 km (10 miles) from the 2003 crash.
Chung Yeong-seok, a professor of maritime law at Korea Maritime and Ocean University, said South Korea could have and should have gone further than it did.
“Even though the current law is not strict, the maritime ministry, with its administrative power, could (cancel a ferry license) based on the tribunal’s findings. But it didn’t do it,” Chung said.
Prosecutors blame the CEO and four company employees for causing the April 16 Sewol sinking by overloading the ship with poorly stowed cargo after a risky redesign, and by neglecting safety in other ways. They also accuse 15 crew members of negligence and of failing to perform their duty to rescue passengers. All but one of the crew has pleaded not guilty, and lawyers for the other defendants have said the cause of the sinking remains unclear.