Sewol disaster demonstrates the danger of ignoring cargo load limits

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Maritime consultants say the safety culture within the company that owned the South Korean ferry Sewol was fatally flawed, as details emerge from criminal trials of the captain and crew.

The 6,825-ton Sewol capsized and sank on April 16 during a trip from the port of Incheon to Jeju. The captain never issued an evacuation order, leaving hundreds of passengers trapped. However, the captain and 21 of 29 crewmembers were rescued. A total of 304 passengers and crew died.

The captain, first mate and two other officers are being tried on murder charges in Gwangju, South Korea. Two senior officers are being tried for fleeing the scene and abandoning ship. Nine other crew are being tried for negligence.

The emerging portrait of Chonghaejin Marine, which owned the ro-ro ferry, is one where virtually no safety training took place, cargo was routinely overloaded and passengers were not counted to make sure the figures met vessel-licensing limits. The company’s chief executive, Kim Han-sik, and four employees are being charged with improperly loading too much cargo and failing to provide safety training for the crew.
As the trials of the captain and crew proceed, company officials and crew describe a management style where violations of regulations were routine. In August, the captain told the Gwangju court that he did not check either the cargo weight or the number of passengers on board because it was established practice not to do so.

Sewol was licensed to carry 987 tons of cargo but was carrying about 3,800 tons of cargo when it capsized, according to the Maritime Industry and Technology Division of the Korean Ministry of Maritime Affairs. Between March 2013 and April 15, 2014, the ferry completed 393 one-way trips. On 246 trips, the ferry exceeded its cargo limit. On 147 trips, zero cargo weight was recorded.

Warnings from crew about the danger of overloading the ferry were dismissed by company officials, according to testimony at the trial. If the International Safety Management (ISM) code applied to Sewol, crewmembers would have the right to report safety and operating violations, said James Staples of OceanRiver LLC, a maritime security and consultant agency. Sewol was a domestic passenger vessel and exempt from the code, which was developed to improve vessel safety and prevent marine pollution. When it came to violations, the crew of Sewol “didn’t have a lot of recourse,” Staples said. “It gets back to do you want to keep your job?”

The Sewol sinking raises the questions of whether the ISM code should be expanded to apply to domestic ferries, he said. “That’s an issue that needs to be looked at by the IMO (International Maritime Organization) because of the large passenger capacity of these vessels,” Staples said.

Reports said Chonghaejin Marine earned an additional $2.9 million in profits from overloading cargo. The problem with Chonghaejin Marine was that the owner “was profit-driven, rather that having a safety culture,” said Staples.
“Because of the amount of the extra steel put on board, (the owner) couldn’t carry as much cargo as he wanted, or the number of passengers,” Staples said. Chonghaejin Marine added three decks of passenger cabins and additional cargo space in a 2013 retrofit. The Yoo family, which controls Chonghaejin Marine, is accused of embezzling millions of dollars from the ferry company.

This is not the first time that overloaded ferries have sunk in South Korea. On Oct. 10, 1993, the 110-ton ferry Seohae sank in high winds on the way to the port of Gyeokpo, killing 292 people. There were 362 passengers on the vessel, which was licensed to transport 221 people. On Dec. 15, 1970, the ferry Namyoung sank because of overloaded cargo, killing 323 people.

Another factor contributing to Sewol’s rapid sinking is that many of the cars and shipping containers were poorly tied down or not lashed down at all. In Alaska, it is standard practice to chain down semi-trucks and construction vehicles, said Ron Bressette, who worked 34 years on ro-ro vessels on the Alaska Marine Highway, with five years as a captain. In the winter, “they get into some really rough weather and they chain everything down, including cars and motorcycles,” he said. Chains were run over the top of semi-truck trailers so they wouldn’t tip over. 

In the U.S., passenger-counting methods are evolving. On Aug. 15, the Washington State Ferries’ (WSF) Cathlamet left the Bremerton terminal for its 1620 sailing. Tickets are not sold for the Bremerton to Seattle trip.

About four minutes after leaving, the ferry’s crew received a passenger count from terminal staff. There were 1,684 people on board, 484 more than Cathlamet’s limit of 1,200 passengers, according to a September report of the incident conducted by Todd Dowler of the Washington State Department of Transportation. The ferry returned and 484 passengers had to leave the vessel.

Counting walk-on passengers is the responsibility of the vessel’s overhead walkway attendant and the terminal loader, also called the passenger attendant. In addition, a crewmember counts the number of people in cars on the ferry. Normally only one person counts walk-on passengers, unless that employee believes the count will be over half vessel capacity, in which case two employees count, according to Capt. George Capacci, WSF’s assistant secretary. Attendants use manual clickers.

For this trip, only the passenger attendant was counting passengers. As the tally on the clicker reached 800, the passenger attendant asked the overhead walkway attendant about the vessel’s capacity. He replied, “Not sure, 1,200 or 1,600,” but that the captain would be OK with it. The vessel left the terminal before the captain received the final count, which is normal practice, according to Dowler’s report. The passenger attendant added the number of people in vehicles (223) with the number of walk-ons (1,461) and gave that information to the deck crew, who told the captain. The captain asked the passenger attendant if she was sure of the total. When she said yes, he turned the vessel around, according to the report.

When interviewed after the incident, the passenger attendant said she believed the hand-held clicker sometimes “jumped numbers.” The passenger attendant and her supervisor believed that is what happened on Aug. 15. In examining electronic recorded and video footage, and talking to Bremerton terminal staff and ferry headquarters staff, Dowler states that there were about 1,073 passengers on Cathlamet, so the ferry was not overloaded.

Although Coast Guard regulations do not require WSF to count every passenger, the company “is going beyond regulations” to try and obtain the most accurate record possible before every sailing, said Capacci.

WSF is looking at whether it should adopt an automatic passenger counting system at its 20 terminals, said Capacci.

Automatic counting systems can be comprised of sensors installed at the turnstiles that passengers walk through to board the ferry. Closed-circuit television cameras, linked to people counting passengers based on the video, are another method.

The Staten Island Ferry installed an automatic passenger counting system seven years ago, according to the New York City Department of Transportation. It is a photo system with 95 percent accuracy and is very cost-effective, the department said.

By Professional Mariner Staff