Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Sewol Tragedy: Part I - The Accident

[Series Index]

To be completely honest, I really did not want to write this post. I do not want to re-live this awful tragedy, seeing again what I saw, hearing again what I heard. Writing this post was greatly upsetting. Many times, I had to stop, take a deep breath, scream in anger, or clench my teeth before I could continue writing.

But I cannot possibly write another post about Korea without addressing this terrible accident. More than 300 lives, most of them young students, perished in an entirely preventable accident. This story needs to be told, and not in the manner of the disgusting disaster porno put on by cable television news.

So here it is: a summary of the most relevant information regarding the sinking of Sewol. This summary will be in three parts:  (1) description of the accident and the rescue efforts; (2) causes and contributing factors of the accident, and; (3) political and social reactions from Korea.


Who and what were involved in the accident?

The Sewol was a cruise/ferry ship that traveled between Incheon, a port city near Seoul, and Jeju-do, a tropical resort island. The ship was carrying 476 passengers, as well as several trucks and container cargoes. Vast majority of the passengers--325 to be exact--were second grade students from Danwon High School, a high school in Ansan, a suburb of Seoul. 

Inside of the Sewol. Photo was taken the day before the accident.
Because Korean high schools have three grades, the second grade students are equivalent of juniors in American high schools, i.e. between 16 and 17 years old. Korean high schools usually go on one long school trip per year involving all students in the same grade. As Ansan is a working class neighborhood, the students tended to be from blue collar families. 

How did the ship begin to sink?

The travel by ferry between Incheon and Jeju is approximately 13.5 hours. The ship had traveled overnight, and entered the western shore of Jindo island, nearly at the southwestern tip of Korean Peninsula.

At 8:49 a.m. of April 16, 2014, the ship made a sharp turn, turning more than 10 degrees within one second, according to the ship's Blackbox. Immediately, the ship began to list due to the sharp turn. There are reasons to believe that the ship had an imbalanced construction, and the cargo was not properly secured. It appears likely that the cargo shifted to one side, causing the ship to list and sink. More on this in the next part of the summary.

When did the authorities first learn the accident?

At 8:52 a.m., the first report of emergency came out of the Sewol--not from the ship's crew, but from a student on board calling 119 (equivalent to 911 in the U.S.) In a couple of minutes, the student was connected to the Coast Guard. (The student, named Choi Deok-ha [최덕하], was found dead.) In response, at 8:58 a.m., the Coast Guard station in the nearby port city of Mokpo dispatched the first rescue team.

At 8:55 a.m., the Sewol's captain Lee Jun-seok [이준석] communicated to the Vessel Transportation Service (VTS) station in Jeju that the ship was listing and sinking. (Note, however, that the nearest VTS station was at Jindo, not Jeju. More on this later.) At 9:10 a.m., the Coast Guard headquarters formed a rescue central. At 9:31 a.m., President Park Geun-hye was notified.

How did the ship's crew respond to the accident? How did the passengers respond?

The ship's crew, particularly the captain, responded with grievous, deadly incompetence. It is probably fair to say that the incompetence by the captain and the senior crew members bears the majority of the blame in letting this incident escalate from an expensive accident to a horrific, full-scale disaster.

As soon as the Jindo VTS station established contact with the Sewol, the VTS repeatedly asked the captain whether the passengers were able to escape. In a reply that is almost certainly a lie, the captain replied they could not. At 9:25 a.m., approximately 30 minutes after the ship began to sink, Jindo VTS station ordered the captain in unequivocal terms: have the passengers put on life jackets, and evacuate the ship. Inexplicably, the captain did nothing, telling the Jindo VTS that the ship's PA system did not work. This was a lie, as the PA system was completely functional at the time. Jindo VTS again told the captain to do what he could to evacuate the ship. The captain, again, does nothing. At 9:33 a.m., Jindo VTS station orders the captain to release all emergency floats from the ship. The captain, again, does nothing other than to keep telling the VTS station to send rescue boats as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, manning the PA system in the lower deck were junior crew members, who continuously asked the bridge if they should evacuate the ship. The bridge, where the captain was, did not respond. Without information, the crew followed the manual and repeatedly told the passengers to stay in their rooms.

Park Ji-yeong, one of the Sewol's heroes
When the first responders arrived at 9:30 a.m., 22-year-old Park Ji-yeong [박지영], 28-year-old Jeong Hyeon-seon [정현선] and 45-year old Yang Dae-hong [양대홍], all of whom are crew members, directed all passengers they saw to get out of the ship. Realizing that there was no PA announcement, Park rushed to the PA system and ordered the passengers to jump into the water--at 10:15 a.m. Unfortunately, this was far too late, as the port side (left side) of the ship was already fully under water by 9:54 a.m. Once submerged, the passengers in the port side cabins were doomed.

Park and Jeong were later found dead; Yang is still missing. Surviving students recall that Park saved many students by putting on life jackets on them and pushing them upstairs. When the students asked if Park wasn't leaving, she replied: "The crew has to stay until the end." Before returning to rescue, Yang telephoned his wife and said:  "the ship listed a lot. Use the money in the bank account for the children's tuition. I have to go save the students."

According to survivors, many students gave their lives trying to save each other, or to save little children. A six year old boy put a life jacket on his five year old sister, and told her that he was going to find his parents. The five-year-old was rescued; the boy, and his parents, are missing. Danwon high school student Jeong Cha-ung [정차웅], a blackbelt holder in kendo and the first confirmed casualty from the Sewol, perished after giving up his life jacket to a friend and trying to save more. According to surviving students, two of Danwon high school teachers, 36-year-old Nam Yoon-cheol and 24-year-old Choi Hye-jeong, each saved at least 10 students before succumbing to the rising water.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Wait, go back. What the hell was the captain and the senior crew doing during all that time? Why were they lying to the Vessel Traffic Service?

For now, we cannot be certain. One tidbit, however, is revealing: between 9 a.m. and 9:37 a.m., the captain and the crew spoke on the phone with the ferry company's headquarters six times. Police investigation is heavily focused on what was said in these communications.

How effective was the first response?

The first responders, consisting of two boats and two helicopters, did their best given the circumstances. -EDIT 2015/04/15- Because of the additional facts uncovered since the accident, the preceding clause is not true. For additional context, please refer to this update post.

The first rescue team, dispatched by the Mokpo Coast Guard station, arrived at the scene by 9:30 a.m. and began taking people off the ship by 9:35 a.m. Jindo VTS also ordered the nearby ships to join the rescue effort at 9:30 a.m.

Then the now-infamous moment occurred: Lee Jun-seok, the captain, was one of the first to escape. Critically, the captain left the ship without announcing to the passengers and other crew members to abandon ship or deploying the life boats. In a case of stomach-turning injustice, the captain and the crew arrived at the port of Jindo by 10:30 a.m., only moments after the ship sank.

Video of the crew escaping before the passengers

Though the first rescue team arrived as quickly as it could, it was already too late. The first responders did not have adequate equipment to rescue the passengers who were trapped inside the ship. Korean Navy responded, but its ship did not arrive until 10:21 a.m.--when the Sewol was mostly underwater. A ship with rescue divers did not arrive until 11:24 a.m., four minutes after the ship sank completely.

At 10:06 a.m., the Coast Guard saw passengers screaming inside a ship's cabin. The Coast Guard broke the window, and rescued seven passengers from inside the cabin. Those seven were the only ones rescued from inside the ship. Many of the passengers who were trapped inside the ship were not able to escape, even as they were watching the rescue boats outside. The students of Danwon high school took the worst end of it, as most of them were in the lower decks of the ship where the fare was cheaper.

How many survived?

In the end, 174 out of the 476 survived. Out of the 325 students of Danwon high school, only 75 survived. Although there was faint hope that rescue divers may be able to save at least a few trapped inside the ship, the survivor count did not go up after the first day of the accident.

Part II will discuss the causes and contributing factors for the accident. If you have a burning question regarding this tragedy, please email and I will consider adding to this post, or addressing in the later parts.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. This does look like a case where Korean hierarchy culture proved tragic.
    It may be that the captain was simply incompetent beyond belief, criminally deceptive, but surely
    one of the senior officers needed to assert themselves at all cost at some point much earlier.

    1. God f**king damnit, what will it take for people to understand that Sewol capsizing or Asiana airline incident had nothing to do with Korean culture.

      I apologize for being offensive, but people trying to link whatever disaster happens in Asia to their culture is seriously starting to irritate me.

    2. I didn't say the airline crash was due to Korean culture. But look at the behavior of the captain, crew, and probably the ship company. Don't dismiss and be so defensive. Look at the facts.

    3. If the response to the Sewol tragedy was "cultural", how would you catagorize the US govt response to Katrina?

    4. @beavis

      Contrast the US govt response to Katrina with the US govt response to the 2008 financial crisis. It's called government of the people by the elite for the elite.

    5. @beavis, Matt, et. al.

      I feel rotten about the sinking. Can't believe how it all played out. It's like Korea's Titanic or something. But right now seems like everyone's too tender to really discuss it in an analytical way. So I'm backing off this topic for awhile. Maybe revisit as we get more distance from it.

    6. No, just plain incompetence. Do you remember the Costa Concordia Disaster or Italy is a "Asian hierarchy culture"...?

    7. @ Zaku - exactly - in many ways the actions of the crew there were very similar - despicable.

  2. lineoffense, this had nothing to do with culture and everything to do with incompetence. Even if it did, it's a jerk move to bring it up.

    That said, I really appreciate your methodical approach to this, TK, and am looking forward to the other posts.

    1. If the captain was incompetent, where was the override?

    2. We've all agreed that the captain of the ship made grave mistakes, but the audio of the communications between the ship and VTS might have revealed his thought process: he repeatedly asked when the rescue ships were going to arrive, since he seemed to be concerned about the cold 40-foot drop from the boat and the extremely cold temperature of the water. The VTS, to my understanding, refused to provide any answers to him on that question. Should they have tried to be more forthcoming with that information? I think so.

    3. I think the captain's communication log put him at an even worse position as it's contradicting...
      Cold water - but only 2 lifeboats dropped.
      Passengers cannot move / difficult to move - should order evacuation earlier as it would get even worse. Rescuers cannot teleport. Even if they are all there now, it will take a long time to gather the passengers.

      The VTS, they said they were contacting other ships. They can't override except suggesting evacuation which they had done that. They could not see the ship and could not make announcement.

      The crew member should take charge, someone gotto see the ship's situation and report. Those in lower decks are far less certain. The ship was huge.

      For the cultural part, I think Koreans know this well. It's not like the west criticizing but their own news commentary may have compared with older one like the Daegu fire. Some similarities are found.

      I don't think I'm any better. If I have not known this, I may just follow the order and stay put. Who knows.

    4. Unbelievable. If there's one positive about this sinking is that it's shining a like on the insects and worms at the top of Korean society.

      Semo Group:


      Korean Coast Guard:


    5. This is a stomach-turning minute-to-minure description of the tragedy. I feel very sad for the families who have lost their loved ones - and incredibly angry at the behavior of the (senior) crew. How can they live with their non-action???

      Great work on your blog, though! Haven*t seen anything even close to this detail of analysis anywhere else in the *traditional* media. Unfortunately.

  3. Many, many ridiculous and unacceptable tragedies happened in Korea. 5.18 movement, Sampoong department store collaping, Daegu subway fire incident, Cheonan submarine sinking, Shelling of Yeonpyong island.. there's so many I can't list them all. But our country still stood strong even in those darkest hours. However, the Sewol tragedy is the only event that opened my eyes on what kind of country I'm living it. Truthfully, my faith is beginning to shake and many of my Korean colleagues feel the same way.

    I for one believe this post will be the definitive post of modern Korea that TK has to share with us. I'm really looking forward to the continued parts.

    1. However, the Sewol tragedy is the only event that opened my eyes on what kind of country I'm living it. Truthfully, my faith is beginning to shake

      I believe it's Rahm Emmanuel who describes a scene at the WH where the President and his staff are knocking out policy decisions at a furious pace one after another just shooting from the hip.

      The truth seems to be that "adults" everywhere only pretend to know what they're doing but often don't have a clue.

      Did the President of Korea have a clue? I wonder if she or her subordinates had any idea what they were supposed to do.

      Based on some of the stories, I wonder if the rescue people had any clue what they were supposed to do.

      Clearly, we know that the captain didn't have a clue.

      Incompetence, corruption and greed everywhere.

      Until the last few minutes, it seems the kids also didn't have a clue as to the danger they were in. Surely, they weren't in real danger? After all, this is real life not a comedy where adults are responsible and big ships don't just flip over and sink drowning everyone in it?

    2. to l46kok

      Have you been living in Korea for a long time or are you Korean? It seems that you know many tragedies here, do you remember the one with the ceiling that collapsed at those poor students who just managed to get to university (Busan)?
      As you may have noticed, if you follow the mass media here in Korea, this ship one is the only tragedy that has been almost the only information on the public news for more than a week now. Don't you find this fact rather suspicious?

      I'm not trying to oppose what you have written, nothing of that kind, really. I just hoped I could find somebody to discuss with in general, you know, about things.

      As big as this tragedy is, it isn't the biggest one Korea has had in the recent history, let's face it. I do send my condolences to the families who lost their loved ones, I understand the kids who survived are terribly traumatised, but the media is still kinda making a too big of a fuss about it. The whole story has reached over the limit, it is exaggerated now (and most of my fellow Korean university colleagues and my boyfriend explicitly agreed) and it really awakes a suspicious thought or two. As if the government or someone else is trying to hide some actions, as if they want to redirect the attention to this accident on purpose. I dunno, it's just a feeling.

      Besides that, if it wasn't rappresented massively this way, I think that would help the survivors recover better. I mean, it's about time to turn it private, you know. I'm saying this whole thing has become like putting salt on their open wounds. It's okay for the media to inform us on how it is proceeding, but, come one, leave them be, tell us another story, there's much more happening either in Korea and in the rest of the world, which is just as important to know.....

  4. That captain deserves the worst.

    1. But there's so much blame to go around including the ship proprietor, safety inspectors, regulators, the revolving door between industry and government, and of course, the ridiculous captain.

      The least to be blamed are perhaps the hapless crew who probably didn't have a clue as to what they were supposed to do since they probably received no emergency training at all by the company.

      I feel sorry for the 3rd mate. Poor girl. The weight of the tragedy on her shoulders.

  5. People who say the disaster had nothing to do with culture clearly know nothing about culture and little about Korea.

  6. Hi there,
    My Hangul is not that proficient, so if you could kindly explain to us what was the story with people imposting as missing' kids parents, telling on telly how happy with rescue effort they are?
    Apparently real parents started wearing their names on their chests after that?
    Sounds like Orwell's Animal Farm to me, if that's true.
    I don't see any differnece between North and South, maybe mobile phones are better in Seoul than up north.

  7. askakorean, shouldn't you wait and write when you have a full detailed report? yes, you should. Your report is not based on facts. Stop writing. Don't publish the next 2 articles.

  8. I've been watching the South Korean Sewol ferry disaster unfold since it happened, and it's unbelievable that western culture continues to lazily assume this - and last year's Asiana Airlines crash - was a result of cultural flaws. Stop with the yellow fever shit, yo! Koreans did not die because of the obedient, docile, submissive, or passive Asian stereotype these idiotic so-called armchair journalists like to project onto an entire nation.

    Nowhere in American society would we EVER say that about any of our natural or man-made disasters; instead, we resort to studying human behavior and psychological tropes for explanation. An excellent book I highly recommend by Amanda Ripley, called "The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why", explores this concept in a clear, concise way, using factual evidence, proven scientific studies, and actual survivor accounts.

    On page 9, referring to 9/11: "In Tower 2, many people followed fatal instructions to stay put." Because this occurred in America, there were absolutely no religious or cultural assumptions made, only psychological inferences. However, had 9/11 occurred in South Korea, I harbor no doubt similar cultural stereotypes would have been assumed. What's the textbook response when shooting occurs on a school campus? Lock the doors and stay in your classrooms until help arrives. Look up the sinking of the MV Estonia ferry from September 1994. Only 137 people survived out of 989 onboard - "...a surprising number of passengers did exactly nothing." ("The Unthinkable"; pg 171)


  9. Chilling. Thanks for writing about this TK. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been.

  10. When the Exxon Valdez disaster happened, I don't recall anyone asking if Captain Hazelwood's cultural background -- you know, that individualistic, freewheeling and authority-defying American cultural background -- had anything to do with his irresponsible and negligent behavior, the behavior that got him convicted for negligence. There's absolutely no doubt, though, that had this happened in Korea these same idiots would be laying the blame squarely at the feet of 'Korean culture'. You armchair philosophers pretending to knowledge you don't have need to STFU with the racist bigotry.

  11. This was completely preventable. The easy reaction of course from those on the ground here in Korea is to talk about culture, since we've seen too many chained emergency doors and disregard for general personal safety. It's hard to disengage from that type of knee jerk reaction, since so many of the brightest lost their lives because of a couple of stupid adjusshit, despite how it's pretty easy to say: hey maybe you shouldn't bolt that door shut, and perhaps we should run through the procedures of this drill for more than 2 minutes I know it'll take me some time to sort it all out, I imagine it must be harder for you being so far away and removed.

    1. I believe in a cultural explanation, but one that relates to the notion that nothing wrong is going to happen, even if one does not follow basic safety rules
      I guess that has absolutely nothing to do with Korea, it happens all over the world
      A few days ago, in my country, three students died due to the collapse of a fifteen foot brick wall in a private property. It happens that this particular wall had been built as if it were some Lego toy.

    2. (Cont) The person who built the piece of crap did not care to make a decent wall with the proper structure, and actually nobody knows who the guy is nor has his face been shown

    3. Maybe I am a romantic dreamer, but I honestly think that when some bring the Far Eastern Culture explanation subject up, they do not do it out of malice, but just because some truly believe in the concept of Asian perfection, obedience, honor and virtue
      Unfortunately, human nature, means the best but also the worst of us, no matter where we come from
      My heart is with all the innocent victims of this dreadful tragedy

  12. Thank you for this very thorough report on a subject that must be very difficult for you to write about. I am learning things that I hadn't heard about before despite reading numerous articles about the disaster.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. This accident was so horrible and left so many people dead and grieving. It shows both sides of human nature and my eyes were filled with tears of grief and rage as I read.
    The incompetence of the captain and the crew members who only wanted to save themselves and did not care about the rest of the lives aboard the ship was so animal-like and disgusting that I cannot help but wish they could be burnt at the stake. How can he escape the sinking ship without even giving a notice that they should try to fend for themselves? It is murder, or massacre, without denying it. There is a living God who will bring them to justice and that is without a doubt. Wow, even the little children could understand that lives were at stake here, why couldn't those animals do so?
    The heroic self sacrifice of the students, crew, and everyone else who forsook their lives for others can never be forgotten. If only the captain and crew who abandoned the ship had half the hearts of those children who threw away their lives to save the people on board, so many people would not have died. I hope this accident brings to light the desperate need for caring leaders with a conscience and morals.

  15. Tough piece to write, but I'm glad you did. Thanks for the detailed account. Looking forward to the next 2 parts.

  16. Thank-you for this article.

    The big question now is will Justice be done and what changes will this lead to?

  17. Nothing 'tropical' about JeJu from September to March, matey! Have you been getting your 'facts' from CNN??

  18. Lord Jim. Except the ship did sink.
    Yang's children should have their places reserved at some top university.

  19. South Korean investigators say an official at the operator of the sunken ferry altered data to hide how much cargo it was carrying at the time of the accident.

    The Sewol capsized and sank off the country's southern coast on April 16th. It was carrying cargo 3.6 times the weight considered safe for navigating the vessel. Investigators believe the overload undermined the ship's ability to right itself after listing.

    Investigators say they learned that an official in the company's logistics division used a computer to change data shortly after the accident began.

    They say the official spoke to a colleague by phone about 50 minutes after the onset of trouble, and mentioned adjusting the cargo weight.

    Investigators say the second official then checked the data confirmed the cargo weight shown was 180 tons less than the real figure.

    The investigators suspect that the company continued operating the ferry even after acknowledging the risks of overloading.

  20. Hi, you said: "For now, we cannot be certain. One tidbit, however, is revealing: between 9 a.m. and 9:37 a.m., the captain and the crew spoke on the phone with the ferry company's headquarters six times. Police investigation is heavily focused on what was said in these communications."

    I think this is the answer: "Investigators say they learned that an official in the company's logistics division used a computer to change data shortly after the accident began. They say the official spoke to a colleague by phone about 50 minutes after the onset of trouble, and mentioned adjusting the cargo weight."

  21. Culture is huge, all you really need to know to predict a countries airline accident rate is how likely people are to tell authority they are wrong. This is a big problem in asian cultures, among others.

    Clearly, we should be taking our etiquette lessons from the Israelis (who barely recognize authority).

    1. Look up the Milgram experiment, most people are conditioned to listen to authority. I'm sure that's compounded more in emergency-type situations.

      "we should be taking our etiquette lessons from the Israelis (who barely recognize authority)."

      No thanks, seeing as more and more Palestinian land is being illegally settled by radical Israeli Jews. Plus, at least SK is not an oppressive apartheid state riddled with conflict.

    2. Of course it varies, person to person, and culture to culture. There are plenty of deferential ones, like the south American crew that ran out of fuel circling New York. And while I largely agree with you about Israel, they are well known for being outspoken, and have an excellent air safety record. Dealing effectively with these issues has been a huge win for air safety over the past few decades, but there is still plenty of room for improvement, and it should be applied in other fields.

    3. I find it offensive that you continue to engage in the common Western tendency to attribute disasters in Asia to a vaguely-defined blanket notion of "culture". In AKA's Sewol tragedy pt. II, there was a comment left by a user named CJL who expressed my own sentiments regarding this thinly-veiled racist explanation of the Sewol incident (which also mostly tends to comes from-surprise, surprise-white Westerners). I am quoting him directly:

      "The West tries to explain whittle down everything that Asians, even Asian AMERICANS, do to this all-consuming but vague idea known as Confucianism. It's a complex philosophy, but it's become a convenient shorthand for Westerners to dismiss Asians as unthinking and unfeeling robots who can never equal Americans or Europeans when it comes to actually being empathetic humans. In times of great geopolitical and economical shifts, I'm certain that such a self-serving belief is soothing.

      It's not as if these types of disasters are endemic to Asia. There have been many disasters in the U.S. where people obeyed authorities to their great detriment. People stayed in the WTC because the people around them told them to. People stayed in New Orleans because authorities didn't give them the evacuation order. People believed that Iraq was this immediate threat of Biblical proportions because the authorities said so.

      Your very post is contradictory in that you accuse Koreans to being slavishly devoted to authority, yet in the next, you accuse them of being extremely selfish. So Koreans are people who mindlessly take orders from higher ups, yet they're also only concerned with doing what's good for themselves?

      Nice try."

      As to your comment about Israel, I have absolutely no admiration or sympathy for the IDF and the illegal occupation of Palestine. Having an "excellent air safety record" means nothing to me when viewed in context; Israel continues to use aerial technologies to bomb and murder civilians. I hear of children and noncombatants dying in these air raids all the time and my heart breaks again and again.

  22. I see some argument going on about Korean culture and accidents. As a Korean studying Aviation Accident Investigation, I can safely say it is true. Cultural influence plays major role in accidents. I am not going to give you a lot of details here now since I was just doing my assignment but our culture has its merits and demerit. Yeap. I am saying this as someone who studies in these area. It's not really Korean culture that has potential to cause such accidents. There are countless accidents caused by pilots ignoring CRM (Crew Resource Management) like Korean Air 801, Birgenair 301 and Flash Airline 604. I am not sure if Sewol has anything to do with this though. It sure does have its influence in secondary way but not as in first hand of causing the accident. No. I personally don't think so.

  23. Just to let you in on an update: Yang-Dae Hong was found dead.


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