Korea ferry disaster reveals problems with evacuation, duty


The failure of captains to properly evacuate their ships, and crews that did not follow emergency procedures, contributed to the deaths of hundreds in two major passenger vessel casualties in the past two years.

When the 6,825-ton South Korean ferry Sewol sank on April 16, the captain never issued an evacuation order, according to Hyung-jun Kim, an official from the crisis center in Jindo, where the disaster occurred.

The captain and most crewmembers abandoned ship while hundreds of passengers were still on board. The captain and 21 of 29 crewmembers were rescued, along with 176 passengers. More than 290 people died.

Similarly, when the cruise ship Costa Concordia struck rocks near Giglio Island in Italy on Jan. 13, 2012, Capt. Francesco Schettino did not give an abandon-ship order until one hour and nine minutes after impact. Schettino and several officers also abandoned ship while 300 officers and crew were still on board; 32 passengers and crew died.

On Sewol, only one of 46 lifeboats deployed, according to an auxiliary policeman with the Korean Coast Guard. All life rafts should have deployed automatically, he said. The Korean Coast Guard is probing why the life rafts on Sewol did not work.

Problems with evacuation began immediately. Sewol made a distress call to Jindo Vessel Traffic Services at 0855 and reported that the ship was rolling. At 0856, a crewmember told Jindo VTS that the ship could move (at that point, Sewol was without engine power). Passengers were repeatedly told by a crewmember to put on life jackets and stay in their rooms, according to Kim. Crewmembers were not ordered to muster stations. A female crewmember did eventually make an evacuation order, “but the time was too late,” Kim said. “At that time, the vessel was already sinking.”

At 0917 a crewmember told Jindo VTS that the crew had gathered on the bridge and was trapped. At 0930 Sewol was reportedly listing 60° to port, according to IHS Maritime’s AISLive. At 0940 the captain and several crew left the bridge and abandoned ship.

In each casualty, the captains of Sewol and Costa Concordia must have soon known that their vessels were sinking, according to James Staples of OceanRiver LLC, a maritime consultancy and security agency. “They both had a lot of information and made poor decisions,” said Staples, who also teaches at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS).

At the time of the sinking, Sewol was severely overloaded. The ferry was carrying about 3,600 tons of cargo when its licensed weight limit was 987 tons, according to a spokesman from the Maritime Industry and Technology Division of the Korean Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. The vessel was only carrying about 500 tons of water ballast when it was required to have 2,020 tons, he said.

“The captain had to know his vessel was in rough shape” with stability problems due to being overloaded, Staples said. “When the ship starts to lay over — it should have been an immediate evacuation.”

A Feb. 25 general inspection by officials from the Korean Coast Guard, the Korea Shipping Association and the Incheon Regional Maritime Affairs and Port Administration found deficiencies in Sewol’s watertight doors and emergency lights, but they were repaired on March 4, according to a Maritime Affairs representative. There was a visual inspection of the life raft canisters. Officials confirmed that the crew had periodically performed emergency and firefighting drills. It has been reported that Sewol was one of five large ferries inspected on Feb. 25 and officials were given five hours for the job.

U.S. Coast Guard regulations require passenger vessels to hold an abandon-ship drill and a fire drill weekly. Among other requirements, one lifeboat must be lowered and the engine started during the drill.

American captains say that proper training for this type of emergency is crucial. “You always train for high-stress situations — that is key,” said Staples. “(The crew) have to know what to do when those alarms ring.” Staples also teaches a one-day course on crowd crisis management that addresses how large groups of people behave in an emergency.

Ron Bressette, who worked 34 years on ro-ro vessels on the Alaskan Marine Highway, five years as a captain, said he always took additional time for the evacuation drill when there were new crew on board. Bressette also did extra lifeboat training. When there was down time at port, he had crew lower the fixed lifeboats, get into them, run them in the harbor for about five minutes, and then raise them again. To him, this was common sense. If the ferry ever needed to be abandoned, “it was going to be done in the middle of a dark night, where people are panicking, and you need people to know what they are doing,” he said. The marine highway has 10 ro-ro vessels, ranging in size from one vessel that carries 149 passengers and 360 vehicles to one that carries 600 passengers and 2,680 vehicles.

Mike Murray, a former captain with Washington State Ferries, said the company sometimes did simulated evacuations with Coast Guard personnel timing the drill.

Bressette said he also trained his crew to act independently in an emergency, if needed. “Communications may break down and they may have to make decisions on their own,” he said.

At MITAGS, Staples said students practice multiple emergency situations in the maritime simulation program. “We put them in high-stress situations to see what kind of decision-making they have,” he said.

However, effective training takes time and money. “Taking time to certify people is money,” said William Doherty, director of marine relations at Nexus Consulting Group. “Taking the time to test your equipment is money. Safety costs money — it’s an attitude.” It has been reported that Sewol’s owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co., spent $521 on all crew training in 2013.

Bressette was shocked that the captain of Sewol abandoned ship. “I can’t even imagine a situation where I would get off the ship before everyone else was off,” he said.

In the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended in January that all passenger ferries carry out-of-water survival craft for all on board.  

Preventing this type of accident in the future in South Korea is up to the nation’s government. SOLAS regulations, which cover international voyages, do not apply to domestic shipping, Staples said.

By Professional Mariner Staff