| JINDO/INCHEON, South Korea, April 21
JINDO/INCHEON, South Korea, April 21 It should
have been plain sailing for a South Korean ferry carrying
hundreds of children and their teachers on an outing to the
sub-tropical island of Jeju, an annual trip for Danwon High
The Sewol had 476 passengers and crew on board, including
339 children and teachers. It had an experienced captain, was
navigating well-known waters and had passed its annual
inspections since it was bought second hand in 2012 by
Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd.
But prosecutors believe the vessel capsized after turning at
too high a speed. Sixty-four people are known to have died and
238 are missing, presumed dead, mostly children.
In an arrest document, the captain was charged with
undertaking an "excessive change of course without slowing down"
while traversing a channel off South Korea's southwestern tip.
He was also charged with negligence in evacuating passengers.
The sequence of known events however offers little clarity
on why the ship should have turned at speed.
According to fishermen and others who navigate the tidal
waters around Jindo island where the Sewol started to sink last
Wednesday, the route followed by the ferry from the port of
Incheon to Jeju was regularly used by ferries and larger vessels
such as oil tankers.
There were few navigation risks in the main channel, they
said. The Korean Meteorological Association said there was a 0.5
metre swell. It was cloudy, but there was no fog.
"The shores of the islands nearby drop straight down," said
Hwang Wan-soon, captain of a 9.77 ton fishing boat who has 40
years' experience sailing in the area.
Han Sang-sik, head of the Jindo office of the Dadohae
Haesang National Park - an area covering 1,700 islets - said the
channel in the spot where the Sewol sank was 37-43 metres
(122-142 feet) deep and the channel itself was 3 km (two miles)
wide, offering plenty of room for manoeuvre.
"People living in nearby islands say fishing boats tend to
avoid the area at full moon as the current is especially strong
at that time," he said. There was a full moon the night before
But that should not have been an issue for the Sewol, with a
gross tonnage of almost 7,000 tonnes and one of the largest
passenger ferries in operation in Korean waters.
The accident happened when the ship made an abrupt turn and
started to list sharply. That's when the ship was suspected of
going too fast. It was not clear if the sudden change of
direction was one of two scheduled course changes to navigate
The vessel was bought second-hand from Japan's A-Line
shipping company, reconfigured and expanded and was subject to a
five-month testing period by the Korea Register of Shipping
between October 2012 and February 2013 before it entered service
on March 15, 2013.
It was subjected to an annual check again in February 2014.
Jung Young-jun, executive vice president of the survey
division at Korean Register of Shipping, said the capacity
expansion from 800 to 900 passengers was completed in accordance
with "national laws and Korean Register requirements".
Evidence given to prosecutors and from the dialogue between
the ship and control centres say cargo started to shift on the
foredeck, but it was not clear whether that caused the boat to
heel after the turn or was a consequence of the heeling.
Moon Ki-han, an executive at Uryeon (Union Transport Co.),
the firm that undertook supervision of cargo loading, told
Reuters there were 105 containers onboard.
Of these, 45 were loaded on to the front deck and 60 into
the lower decks. In total, the ship was carrying 3,600 tonnes of
cargo including containers, vehicles and other goods.
One of the lines of investigation is that a sharp turn could
have caused the cargo to shift, which in turn could have
contributed to the swift capsizing of the ship. Investigators
have seized the records of Uryeon and the ship owner.
The captain was not on the bridge at the time of the initial
listing - not unusual on a 13.5-hour voyage. Navigation was the
responsibility of a 26-year-old third mate on her first passage
in charge through these waters.
Transcripts of conversations between the bridge of the Sewol
and land-based shipping control indicate that the ferry
initially contacted the control in Jeju island about 56 miles
(90 km) away and not the nearest centre on nearby Jindo island
when it started to list.
It is normal procedure to use the destination control as the
centre except in the case of an emergency and it is not known
why the radio operator continued to contact Jeju.
At 08:55 a.m on April 16, while traversing the Maenngol
Channel, the Sewol told Jeju Vessel Traffic Service: "This ship
is in danger. This ship is listing."
A minute later the ship radioed: "This ship is starting to
capsize. Please come quickly." By 9 a.m, it had reported the
ship had tilted leftward. "Containers have fallen," it said.
At 0905 a.m., Jeju control contacted the Jindo station,
which was in a position to call for assistance from local
Testimony from witnesses and the transcript of the
conversation between the ship's bridge and the control centre in
Jindo shows that the crew of the ship did not believe there were
enough rescue vessels in the area to save the passengers.
ONLY TWO LIFEBOATS DEPLOYED
It was not known why no more than two of the Sewol's 46
lifeboats were deployed, nor why the captain and crew did not
follow emergency procedures laid down in their own manual.
"In case of fire, collision, retreat, terror and any other
emergency, the crew should follow the captain's command; make an
announcement of an evacuation and (location of) the emergency
exit doors; guide (passengers) to escape routes in the area of
their responsibility," the manual says, adding that lifeboats
and lifebuoys should be checked monthly.
Witness testimony and the conclusion of prosecutors
investigating the sinking show that the captain and some of the
crew evacuated the ship before most of the passengers, who were
instructed in some cases to remain where they were.
Later transcripts show the decision to evacuate being placed
in the hands of the captain and under the standing rules of the
ship, it was the captain's final decision.
"We don't know the situation over there, so captain you
should make a final decision about whether or not to evacuate
the ship," the control on the island of Jindo said.
(Additional reporting by Jumin Park, James Pearson, Narae Kim,
Kahyun Kim and Keith Wallis; Writing by David Chance; Editing by
Nick Macfie and Raju Gopalakrishnan)