Korean ferry tragedy: survivor's guilt claims a victim

As horrible news continues to pour from the sinking of a South Korean ferry filled with school children, a new note of tragedy was struck by the apparent suicide of one of the survivors.  The vice principal of the high school, Kang Min-kyu, was found hanging from a tree on an island close to where the ferry went down, outside a gymnasium where families of the missing students had gathered.  Korean news services say he felt guilty about surviving, even as 28 bodies have been recovered, and 270 people remain missing.  A Reuters report at the Chicago Tribune says Kang was hanged with his own belt, and did not leave a suicide note.

The kids were on their way to a holiday retreat on the island of Jeju, departing from the port of Incheon, a journey that normally requires about 13 hours to complete.  Something went hideously wrong when the ferry reached a scheduled turn.  Investigations into possible negligence by the crew have begun; in fact, Fox News reports that an arrest warrant is being sought for the captain, 69-year-old Lee Joon-seok.  In an uncomfortable echo of the Costa Concordia disaster, there have been allegations that the captain was at least half an hour too slow in ordering an evacuation, and might have been one of the first into a lifeboat.  20 of the 29 crewmembers survived, which has led to some angry accusations that they didn’t work hard enough to ensure the safety of the passengers before abandoning ship themselves.

The Chicago Tribune includes an odd quote from a Korean maritime author who claims his culture has different views about the captain staying with his ship until the end, but the families of the missing passengers seem to be taking a “Western” view of the matter.  Among the many good reasons for believing the captain should stay with his ship is his superior knowledge of evacuation procedures, which can help him get into a lifeboat first and rocket to safety, but obviously isn’t doing the panicked passengers much good after he bails on them.

The captain is described as a seasoned veteran with expert knowledge of the waters he was sailing, but he handed the bridge over to a much less experienced junior officer before the ship reached that scheduled turn.  It has been established that the ship turned too sharply and began listing, but the reasons are unclear.  It might have been an error on the part of the bridge crew, or possibly a result of improperly-secured cargo shifting when the ship began its turn.  Several survivors mentioned hearing a loud “bang” before the ship began to list, but the source of that noise remains undetermined.

Family members of the lost and missing have been demanding the captain speak to them, but his only public appearance since the incident was a brief press conference at a South Korean Coast Guard office, where he covered his face with a hoodie, wept, and said “I am sorry, I am at a loss for words.”

There are also questions about renovations made to the 20-year-old ship in 2012.  According to a Korean official quoted in the Fox News story, the ship’s weight was increased by 187 tons, and its passenger capacity grew by 117.  The ship reportedly passed all safety inspections after this work was done, and the junior officer in command at the time of the disastrous turn had worked on the renovated ship for at least six months.  The Chicago Tribune mentions some investigations into the gloomy finances of the company that owned the ferry, and four other ships; the government might be trying to establish if any corners were cut in maintenance or crew training.

NBC News describes the captain’s fateful 30-minute delay in ordering an evacuation, as he made several unsuccessful attempts to bring his ship back to an even keel, apparently disregarding orders from officials on shore to commence evacuation procedures immediately.  However, the crew seemed to feel that the degree to which the ship was listing had already made evacuation impossible for many of the passengers:

Oh Yong-seok, a helmsman on the ferry with 10 years of shipping experience, told The Associated Press that when the crew gathered on the bridge and sent a distress call, the ship was already listing more than five degrees, the critical angle at which a vessel can be brought back to even keel.

The first instructions from the captain were for passengers to put on life jackets and stay where they were, Oh said. A third mate reported that the ship could not be righted, and the captain ordered another attempt, which also failed, Oh said.

A crew member then tried to reach a lifeboat but fell because the vessel was tilting, prompting the first mate to suggest to the captain that he order an evacuation, Oh said.

About 30 minutes after passengers were told to stay in place, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, Oh said, adding that he wasn’t sure in the confusion and chaos on the bridge if the order was relayed to the passengers.

“We couldn’t even move one step. The slope was too big,” said Oh, who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain.

An unidentified shipping official who received the vessel???s radio distress call ordered the crew to put on life jackets and prepare for evacuation, the AP reported.That order came five minutes after the distress call.

However, a crew member replied over the radio that “it’s hard for people to move.”

Although the ship sank two days ago, there are still hopes that some of the missing passengers are alive, trapped inside sealed compartments.  This was cited as a reason for holding off on using cranes to salvage the downed ship.  Evidently the family members of missing passengers have to give consent before any measure that could endanger a trapped survivor can be attempted.  There isn’t much realistic hope of effecting further rescues, as rough weather has moved into the area.  It’s already being described as the worst maritime disaster for South Korea in two decades.  If all of the 270 missing people are lost, the horror will be overwhelming.

Heartbreaking scenes from survivor vigils are described by the Chicago Tribune:

At the high school in Ansan, an industrial town near Seoul, many friends and family of the missing gathered in somber silence, with occasional sounds of sobbing breaking the quiet.

“When I first received the call telling me the news, at that time I still had hope,” said Cho Kyung-mi, who was waiting for news of her missing 16 year-old nephew at the school.

“And now it’s all gone.”

In the classrooms of the missing, fellow students have left messages on desks, blackboards and windows, asking for the safe return of their missing friends.

“If I see you again, I’ll tell you I love you, because I haven’t said it to you enough,” reads one message.

And Fox News:

On the shore of a nearby island, angry and bewildered relatives watched the rescue attempts. Some held a Buddhist prayer ritual, crying and praying for their relatives’ safe return.

“I want to jump into the water with them,” said Park Geum-san, 59, the great-aunt of another missing student, Park Ye-ji. “My loved one is under the water and it’s raining. Anger is not enough.”

The ship was within cell-phone coverage as it began to sink, giving the trapped students an opportunity to send text messages to their families.  NBC News collected some of these messages:

???Mom, in case I don???t get a chance to speak to you???I love you,” one student, named in Korean media as Shin Young-Jin, said in a text to his mother.

“Oh, I love you too son,” she replied, apparently unaware of the deadly drama unfolding at sea.

[…] In a series of desperate messages to her father, 16-year-old Kim Woong-Ki sent a text describing the unfolding crisis on the ship, according to Korean media.

???It???s dangerous if I move,??? she said.

???I know that the rescue is going on but if it???s possible just come out,??? her father replied.

???Dad, the ferry has tilted too much. I cannot walk, there???s too many of us in the corridor and it???s too tilted.???

CNN reports that U.S. Navy helicopters have joined the rescue effort, but rain, high winds, strong currents, and murky, frigid water have hampered rescue efforts.  The rescue effort is now said to include over 170 ships and 500 divers.  The next step contemplated by authorities might involve pumping oxygen into the ship to raise it enough for rescuers to access the areas where survivors could be trapped.  The captain’s order to passengers that they don life jackets but remain in place would have left most of them stuck in the bedroom area on the fourth deck, which divers have now made six unsuccessful attempts to access.

Update: Captain Lee Joon-seok and two of his crewmembers were arrested Friday afternoon (early Saturday local time) according to USA Today.  The captain was charged with negligence of duty and violation of maritime law.  The members of his crew placed under arrest were apparently operating the ship when it made its fateful hard turn.