Comments on the sinking of the MV Sewol 16 April 2014, Part 3: Playing the blame game or asking difficult questions — written by Prof Ed Galea, 23 April 2014 23:00

As in most disasters of this type, so soon after the incident, information concerning the nature of this incident is far too sketchy to draw any firm conclusions.  Indeed, at the time of writing there are more questions than answers.  In my previous two blogs I reported what we currently know about the Sewol disaster, based on current media accounts and issues that hampered the evacuation of the passengers on the Sewol.  In the media blame is being firmly placed on the captain and bridge crew, but are these few people truly the only responsible for this tragedy?  Is there a wider problem that is the root cause of this and similar disasters?  In this blog I explore these issues.

The latest reports from South Korea now suggest that of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 174 were rescued, 159 bodies have been recovered and 143 people are still missing.


It is human nature to want to blame someone after a tragedy.  But when a disaster of this magnitude occurs, it is time for a nation as a whole to reflect on its safety culture, and not simply blame a few individuals. We should be looking at the safety culture on board the Sewol, in the company that owns and runs the vessel, within the South Korean maritime industry and within South Korean culture as a whole.  It is far too easy to point a finger at a few people, as the South Korean President has done.  To address the real problem and ensure that this type of disaster never happens again, we must identify and address the root cause(s) of the problem and this is likely to be the result of a number of factors, beyond the immediate actions of the Captain and crew.


To put this disaster into context it is useful to compare it to two other Ro-Ro ferries that have capsized in recent history resulting in large loss of life. In 1987 the Herald of Free Enterprise rolled over shortly after leaving port due to her bow doors being opened in less than 4 minutes and claimed the lives of 94 people while in 1994 the Estonia capsized in rough seas within about 15 minutes and claimed the lives of some 850 people.  So Ro-Ro vessels such as the Herald of Free Enterprise, Estonia and Sewol can capsize very rapidly if water gets onto the large open car decks.


We believe that the crew of the Sewol first called the coast guard (CG) at 08:56 to say that they were in distress – however, it is not clear how long they waited after realising that they were in trouble before called the CG. It was reported today that the first call to the authorities was actually made by one of the children on board as he was frightened that the ship would sink.  This is believed to be some 3 minutes before the crew made their first call.

From the official transcripts: 

9:10 a.m.

Sewol: Jindo VTS, this is Sewol

Jindo Coastal VTS: This is Jindo Coastal VTS.

Sewol: We’re tilted, so it looks like we’ll flip over soon.

Jindo Coastal VTS: Okay. How are the people on board? Boat A is nearing your boat as fast as possible.

Sewol: We’re so tilted that (we) can hardly move.

9:17 a.m.

Jindo Coastal VTS: Sewol, do you read Jindo Coastal VTS? (four times). How flooded are you?

Sewol: With the boat now tilted at least 50 degrees to the left, people can’t move to their left or right. The crew have been told to wait with their life jackets on. But it’s impossible to check whether they’re actually wearing them. Crew members gathered on the bridge are unable to move. Please hurry up.

So at 09:10 (some 14 minutes after first official message to the CG) they state that the vessel was severely leaning over, but no firm indication as to the degree of heel apart from saying they can hardly move. At 09:17 they estimate that they are on a heel of about 50 degrees, this is some 21 minutes after the crew first contacted the CG and some 24 minutes after the child made his call.

So the vessel appears to have a severe list some 14 to 21 minutes after the crew first radioed the CG to inform them of their emergency. We do not know how long it took them to radio the CG after the incident began, but it appears to be some 3 minutes after the child on board made his call. So it appears that they may have had around 17 minutes (or more) before conditions on the vessel became very difficult.

It will be important to establish when the crew first attempted to contact the passengers and when the message to “stay where you are” was made.

Given that around 17 minutes may have been available before conditions deteriorated to the point that movement became almost impossible, it is unlikely that all 476 souls on board the Sewol would have been able to reach the assembly points from which they could relatively easily abandon the vessel.  Nevertheless, had a command to commence the assembly phase been given at the earliest possible time, it is likely that considerably more of those on board could have been able to reach the assembly stations and therefore been in a position to abandon the vessel.


Given that there appears to have been sufficient time to allow a greater number of people to evacuate from the Sewol, it is important to establish the following: what were the evacuation procedures? How well did the crew know and understand them? What prevented the crew from implementing them?

These questions allude to the safety culture on the Sewol, in the management company, and in wider South Korean society, particularly:

  • What were the evacuation procedures on the Sewol?
    • How appropriate were these procedures for a Ro-Ro ferry?
  • Are passengers routinely informed of the evacuation procedures prior to departure?
    • How are they informed?
  • How familiar were the Captain and crew with their own evacuation procedures?
    • How often did the Captain and crew drill their evacuation procedures?
    • What did the evacuation drill consist of?
    • What was considered acceptable performance in evacuation drills and does this demonstrate an appropriate level of competence and understanding?
  • What oversight of the evacuation procedures did the parent company of the Sewol have?
  • What oversight of the evacuation training did the parent company of the Sewol have?
  • Did the corporate culture encourage or discourage adherence to safety and evacuation procedures?
  • What oversight of the evacuation procedures did the Korean maritime authorities have?
  • What oversight of the evacuation training did the Korean maritime authorities have?

Similar questions could be asked relating to other operational issues such as those relating to the safe navigation of the vessel, loading and securing cargo and rescue operations.

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