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Another bewildering tragedy, another mass of questions
Publication Date : 25-04-2014
Like the case of the missing Malaysia Airlines' MH370, the tragedy of the Korean ferry Sewol has dismayed but also bewildered both the public and experts. How could a routine trip end in the deaths of at least 300 passengers, mostly schoolchildren? Looking back, there are several critical points and questions arising from events that unfolded on that fateful day last week:
1. The Sewol first sought emergency assistance at around 9am on Wednesday, April 16. It took half an hour for the first boats to arrive. By that time the ferry had listed 60 degrees to port. It took 45 minutes for the first helicopter to arrive at the scene. Why so long, when the country is on permanent high alert for aggression launched by its "enemy", North Korea? The two nations exchanged artillery fire as recently as late March. The first helicopter should have arrived at the scene of the ferry disaster within 10 minutes. Where were the South Korean military? If the North had launched an attack, would they have caught the South's soldiers sleeping?
2. Eighty vessels and 18 aircraft took part in rescue efforts. But by the time they arrived, they could do nothing. It was a futile exercise.
3. The US Navy issued a statement at 9:28am. Captain Heidi C Alge, commodore of the Amphibious Squadron 11 said:
"When we were alerted to the accident, we immediately diverted to the scene to render assistance. However, the efficiency of the Korean response eclipsed the immediate need for our assets. We are standing by to provide support as requested by the on-scene commander."
But the fact is that the Koreans were doing a poor job in rescuing the passengers on board the sinking ferry. The US Navy simply stood by without helping. There was plenty of time to help the stricken passengers. What was the problem here?
4. The adults and children on board were told by the captain to remain in their cabins while the ferry was listing. Why didn't he order them to muster? He should have had long enough - from 9am to 10am - to get the passengers out? Why the delay?
5. When the ferry capsized at 10:23am, it was too late. Some 300 were stuck inside their cabins.
6. Korean investigators have quickly concluded that the ferry tragedy was an accident caused by carelessness on the part of the captain and his crew or by poor weather conditions.
7. Investigators conclude that third-mate Park Han-kyul, 25, who was steering the ship, made a sudden turn, causing the ferry to tilt. But what exactly was she trying to avoid in turning so abruptly? It is impossible for a near-7,000-tonne ferry to list 60 degrees due to a mere steering error. It is possible that a ship this size could get into trouble in a severe storm, but the Sewol was facing foggy conditions, not stormy, when it foundered.
8. Passengers report hearing a loud noise just before the ferry began to list. What was that noise?
9. The ferry could only be caused to list by:
- Being hit by a missile or torpedo;
- Striking a submerged object;
- An explosion in its engine room.
We can likely dismiss the first possibility. So far there are no clues to suggest that the ferry came under attack from hostile forces. As for the second possibility, investigators have found no evidence that the ferry struck a rock or other submerged object. In either case, if the cabins were sealed and the water could not leak in, the ferry would continue to float. But in the third scenario, an explosion in the engine room or another part of the ferry, either by accident or through an act of terrorism, could cause seawater to flood in and the ferry to list and quickly sink.
South Korean investigators should not pass judgement until they have thoroughly examined all the evidence. They should focus on discovering why a ferry of this size sank so quickly and whether seawater flooded the ferry, causing it to capsize. If this was the case, why didn't the captain or the rescuers order passengers to leave the ship as the ferry continued to list. There was plenty of time to help many of those on board. Even when it capsized, no order was given immediately to abandon ship.
Expect to hear plenty more about the ferry disaster in coming weeks. Many mysteries here remain unanswered.