Wednesday, 23 April 2014

South Korea Sewol-ho ferry disaster

Time to rethink 'hurry, hurry' culture of Korea
By Yu Kun-ha, Published The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2014

WHAT will it take for South Korea to upgrade its safety culture? The question is being raised again as the entire nation is gripped with sorrow over the tragic sinking last Wednesday of the ferry Sewol off the southern coast.

Among the 476 passengers on board, only 174 have been rescued, with the remainder dead or still missing. But the disaster could have been avoided had the ship's crew and the company that operated it paid more attention to safety.

Investigators have tentatively concluded that the main cause of the tragedy was the crew's navigational errors. Yet underlying them was a woeful lack of safety awareness.

Gross indifference to safety, coupled with the government's frustratingly slow rescue operations, also contributed to boosting the death toll, making the shipwreck one of the nation's worst maritime disasters. The 6,825- tonne ferry, the largest of its kind in Korea, was on its way from Incheon to Jeju Island when it capsized in waters off Jindo Island, an area with the second-strongest tidal currents in Korea.

A series of mistakes

BUT Incheon-Jeju ferries normally change direction here. The ill-fated ship also altered course here. But investigators suspect that it did so too abruptly, without slowing down, in a narrow sea lane between islands.

As a result, the vessel lost balance and began to list. To make matters worse, the 180 vehicles and 1,100 tonnes of cargo on board were not tightly fastened. The sharp turn pushed them to one side, which further threw the ship off balance.

At the time of the accident, the ship was being steered by a third mate with only one year of experience. Investigators found that it was the first time that the inexperienced female officer attempted to navigate the risky waters.

Passing through such a dangerous zone requires caution. Therefore, the captain should have guided the novice officer. But he was outside the steering room when the ship was thrown out of whack, illustrating his indifference to safety.

Lack of safety measures

HAD the captain and other crew members taken proper safety measures after they realised the ship was in trouble, they could have minimised the casualties. But they behaved in a totally misguided and irresponsible way.

After sending a distress call to the coast guard, the crew repeatedly told the passengers, mostly high school students on a field trip to Jeju Island, to stay in the cabins. But this proved to be a terribly misguided instruction.

It did not take long for water to begin to gush into the cabins as the ship continued to tilt. The crew finally told the passengers to abandon the vessel. But it was already too late. Those inside the cabins could not move because the ferry was too tilted.

The crew should have tried to rescue the trapped passengers. But many crew members, including the captain, abandoned the ship, leaving the passengers behind. They totally forgot their responsibility towards passengers.

What annoys us most is that about 70 per cent of the 29 crew members escaped from the ship safely, while among the 325 students of Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi province, only 23 per cent were rescued.

On Friday, prosecutors arrested the captain, the third mate and the steersman who operated the wheel under the novice officer, on charges of carelessly navigating the ship and abandoning it in danger.

The shipping company that operated the ferry also showed a lamentable lack of safety awareness. In the first place, it failed to conduct emergency safety drills for the ship's crew. The ship had an emergency manual but the crew did not follow it.

The company must have been negligent in checking the ship's safety equipment as well, given that only one of the 46 lifeboats attached to the vessel could be launched.

The company remodelled the ferry's stern after purchasing it from Japan two years ago. It expanded the cabin to accommodate more passengers. This could have moved the ship's centre of gravity to a higher position, making it more likely to topple over when tilted.

The ferry disaster has also demonstrated how unorganised the government's emergency response system remains. Had the coast guard moved promptly in the initial stage of the crisis, it could have reduced the number of casualties.

The coast guard rescue team arrived late and the number of rescuers was insufficient. So it just rescued passengers and crew members who had got out of the sinking ship, without attempting to go inside to help the trapped passengers evacuate.

Since her inauguration, President Park Geun Hye has stressed that people's safety is one of her top priorities. To demonstrate her commitment to safety, she changed the name of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.

But it takes more than changing a ministry's name to make Korea a safer society. The government needs to reform its emergency management system.

More importantly, the government should strive to enhance Korea's safety culture. Korea cannot become a safe place to live without first improving people's safety awareness.

Speed over safety

WHAT the nation needs to do is to upgrade its "pali pali" or "hurry, hurry" culture, a legacy of Korea's rapid industrialisation that began in the early 1960s.

Former president Park Chung Hee, father of the incumbent President, sought to achieve economic growth as fast as possible to win the competition with North Korea. He pursued economic development in the same fashion as the military pursues the defeat of the enemy.

Each year, he set an ambitious growth target and employed whatever means available to attain it. As getting things done assumed paramount importance, speed and efficiency often took precedence over safety.

The late president's approach has taken root in every corner of Korean society, fostering the "hurry-up mentality" among Koreans.

Yet the "pali pali" culture has both merits and demerits. Some experts assert that it has helped Korean companies become more competitive. They also cite it as a factor behind Korea's rise as a global IT powerhouse.

However, it is also indisputable that the "hurry, hurry" mindset has bred indifference to safety, the underlying cause of the unending series of manmade disasters in Korea.

To make Korea a safer place to live, the "hurry, hurry" culture needs to be changed. It should be brought home to people that they should not sacrifice safety even if they are in a mad rush to get things done fast.


The writer is chief editorial writer of The Korea Herald.

A captain's duty to his passengers
By Christopher Drew And Jad Mouawad, Published The Straits Times, 22 Apr 2014

EVER since the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, carrying its captain and many of the passengers with it, the notion that the captain goes down with his ship has been ingrained in popular culture.

But now, for the second time in just over two years, a ship captain - first in Italy and now in South Korea - has been among the first to flee a sinking vessel, placing his own life ahead of those of his terrified passengers.

A much-publicised photo from the latest accident shows the Korean captain being helped off his own ship, the Sewol, stepping off the deck to safety even as scores of his passengers remained below, where, as survivors believe, they became trapped by rushing water and debris.

The behaviour has earned the captain, Lee Jun Seok, 69, the nickname the "evil of the Sewol" among bloggers in South Korea. It also landed him in jail.

Maritime experts call the abandonment shocking - violating a proud international (and South Korean) tradition of stewardship, based at least as much on accepted codes of behaviour as the law.

"That guy's an embarrassment to anybody who's ever had command at sea," said retired US Navy rear admiral and former submarine captain John Padgett III.

His sentiments were echoed by Captain William Doherty, who has commanded US Navy and merchant ships and managed safety operations at a major cruise line. He called Lee's decision to leave his 447 passengers "a disgrace", likening it to the desertion of the stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship off the Italian coast in 2012.

"You can't take responsibility, or say you do, for nearly 500 souls, and then be the first in the lifeboat," Capt Doherty said.

Civil courts in the United States have long viewed captains as having an obligation to protect their passengers and ships, but the cases in South Korea and Italy seem likely to test the notion of criminal liability in disasters.

The Costa Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, is on trial on manslaughter charges after the sinking of his ship left more than 30 people dead.

The South Korean coast guard yesterday said at least 64 people have died in the Sewol incident and 238 are missing.

Most countries do not explicitly state that a captain must be the last person to leave a distressed ship, experts say, giving captains the leeway to board lifeboats or nearby ships if they can better command an evacuation from there. South Korea's law, however, appears to be explicit, allowing the authorities to arrest Lee for abandoning the ferry and its passengers in a time of crisis.

An international maritime treaty known as the Safety of Life at Sea - first adopted in 1914 after the Titanic disaster - makes a ship's captain responsible for the safety of his vessel and everyone on board. The treaty also says that passengers should be able to evacuate within 30 minutes of a general alarm.

The Sewol took more than two hours to sink, but many survivors say the crew told passengers it was safer to stay put inside the ship, likely dooming them. (The captain says he later issued instructions for passengers to evacuate, but it remains unclear if that was conveyed to passengers.)

The US Navy's rules are more explicit than those for commercial ships. Naval History and Heritage Command spokesman Dave Werner says Navy rules dating to 1814 require a captain to remain with a stricken ship as long as possible and salvage as much of it as he can. He cites current regulations that state: "If it becomes necessary to abandon the ship, the commanding officer should be the last person to leave." The list of military and commercial ship captains who refused to abandon ship is a long one.

The Titanic's captain, E. J. Smith, was probably steaming too fast when the giant ship hit an iceberg, but he later won praise for helping to save more than 700 lives. He insisted that women and children be evacuated first, and he stayed near the bridge as the ship went down.

After the Andrea Doria collided with another vessel off Nantucket in 1956, the captain, Piero Calamai, pledged to remain on his own on the listing ship after the passengers were evacuated to try to save it. He agreed to abandon the vessel only when other officers refused to leave without him.

This sense of a captain's duty was also part of the narrative in the crash of US Airways Flight 1549, which was forced to ditch in the Hudson River after losing power in both engines when it struck birds. After landing the plane on the water, Captain Chesley Sullenberger twice checked the sinking cabin to make sure no one was left before leaving himself.

Lessons drawn from South Korean ferry disaster
By Edward Tenner, Published The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2014

WITH hope fading for the rescue of the 271 passengers still missing after the South Korean ferry Sewol capsized and sank last Wednesday, it is not too early to draw lessons from the disaster.

First, few great disasters have one single explanation. In some cases, imagination fills in an incomplete story. The great Chicago fire of 1871 almost certainly was not started by Mrs O'Leary's cow overturning a lantern. Folklore scholars have a word - sharpening - for the addition of detail after original information is lost.

And the spark is often beside the point. Catastrophic loss of life and property usually signals a fateful conjunction of unlikely circumstances, none of which might have been fatal in itself. If Chicago hadn't been a boomtown built mainly of wood; if there hadn't been a prolonged drought; if the air had been calm instead of windy, and so on.

This principle applies, too, in most of the great peacetime shipwrecks. Consider the Titanic. The flat sea and atmospheric conditions prevented lookouts from recognising the iceberg until it was too late. The scraping of sea ice against the hull led to a failure of riveted plates. There were problems communicating with other ships.

No matter how many levels of safety we devise, there are always a few cases in which the loopholes in each of them align. Perhaps the Korean ferry experienced such a fatal conjunction.

Second, organisations may be more to blame for disasters than individuals. Agencies and corporations nominally committed to safety may ignore good engineering practice to meet what they consider urgent goals.

In her study of the 1986 Challenger launch decision, the sociologist Diane Vaughan pointed to what she called the "normalisation of deviance". A culture such as Nasa's that becomes overly concerned with budgets and timetables may no longer recognise that it is encouraging people to take unacceptable risks to meet them.

In the Sewol's case, we need to look beyond the captain to the rest of the officers and company procedures. Roll-on, roll-off vehicle decks such as the one on the Sewol can make ships unstable if flooded. Was there special vigilance to protect against damage from loose equipment?

The communications officer has said he had not participated in evacuation drills and did not have time to read the evacuation manual. Were he and other officers provided with pocket summary charts?

At the other extreme, excessively strict accountability can bite back. Some of the greatest disasters have happened on the watch of experienced officers.

In 1977, when a control tower's communications with two planes on the ground became confused on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, a KLM 747 collided with a Pan American 747 on a foggy runway with the loss of 583 lives. The KLM pilot was one of Europe's most respected. But one of the causes, investigators concluded, was his seniority. Junior officers who should have questioned his decisions on danger signals may have stayed silent.

Was there a similar problem on the Sewol? Were officers and crew aware of potential problems but afraid to report them?

Third, crowds interact unpredictably with technology. The most controversial aspect of the Sewol tragedy has been the crew's decision to instruct the passengers to remain in their cabins. This may turn out to have been a fatal, even criminal, error. But on an unstable ship, passenger behaviour can be a wild card.

In 1915, the steamer Eastland, chartered for an excursion of factory workers and known to be prone to listing, capsized at its dock in the Chicago River, trapping 800 aboard. Too many passengers were on one side of the boat, perhaps because they had rushed from one side to another as the vessel began to list.

The real lesson of the Sewol may turn out to be that evacuating a ship or even a building is one of the most complex tasks for technology and human judgment. "Evacuation dynamics", a discipline at the intersection of physics, engineering, architecture and social psychology, is barely 15 years old, but the principle is familiar: All of those individual disciplines play a part in a successful evacuation.

At least two approaches to planning for future emergencies are promising. Where technology is inherently risky, it is possible to reduce casualties by fostering what social scientists call high-reliability organisations - teams in which all members take responsibility for safety and respond creatively to failure.

The best known example may be the US Navy's programme for flight deck operations on aircraft carriers. Researchers Gene Rochlin, Todd LaPorte and Karlene Roberts describe a carrier as "one gigantic school, not in the sense of rote learning but in the positive sense of a genuine search for acquisition and improvement of skills".

For civilian ferries and other passenger craft, it is also time to design the vessels and organise the crews for safety from the inside out - to rethink ship layouts in the light of human behaviour in emergencies.

To be certified in the US by the Federal Aviation Authority, a commercial aircraft must be capable of evacuation within 90 seconds, even if half the exits are blocked. Obviously so rapid an evacuation is impossible at sea, nor would it normally be required. But a collaboration of designers and behavioural scientists, financed by shipbuilders, shipping lines and insurance firms, could create realistic goals and develop procedures to avoid panic and cut evacuation time.

As software for simulation and computer-assisted design improves, a new generation of safer designs and better evacuation procedures should be achievable.


The writer, a visiting scholar at Rutgers and Princeton, is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology And The Revenge Of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.

South Koreans reflect on culture of obedience
By Chang May Choon, The Straits Times, 23 Apr 2014

SOME critics have blamed the high death toll in South Korea's ferry disaster - 108 bodies recovered so far, 194 still missing - on the country's culture of obedience. But others feel it was only natural for the passengers, mostly high school students, to listen to a voice of authority during an emergency situation.

South Korea may be the world's most wired country, but Confucian values instilled during the Chosun dynasty still run deep.

Children are taught to respect their elders and listen to them, and workers rarely challenge their seniors in the office.

Even if they dare speak up - like the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 co-pilot who warned his pilot that the plane was descending too fast before it crashed in San Francisco last year - their words may not be taken seriously.

On board the doomed Sewol, the captain and his crew issued orders to stay put and not move when the ferry started listing and eventually sank in waters off the south-western coast of the Korean peninsula last Wednesday.

Media reports noted that it was the "naughty" students - the ones who disobeyed orders - who are among the 174 survivors.

Those who obeyed instructions did it out of the conformist mindset to "do what everyone else is doing", said Ms Kelly Yu, 38, a South Korean mother of two living in Singapore.

"If one person moves, others will say, 'no, no, you have to listen to the teacher'," she told The Straits Times. "It's very difficult to break out of group behaviour."

South Koreans are "painfully aware" of their need to belong to a larger system and maintain a good public image, wrote Dr Kim Eun Yong in her book, A Cross-cultural Reference Of Business Practices In A New Korea. "South Koreans first consider what others would think of them in their decision-making process and tend to avoid any risky deviation from conformity."

Others, like marketing consultant Joanna Choi, 25, said she feels that the students acted out of a natural and not cultural instinct.

"It's not just students who followed orders, adults, too," she said. "It's a natural instinct to follow guidance during an emergency situation."

The fault should not fall on the victims' shoulders, said Mr Kim Wan Joong, minister-counsellor and consul-general of the South Korea Embassy in Singapore.

"You can't call it a culture of obedience," he said. "Anyone on board is supposed to follow orders, it's a form of discipline."

Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard University Paul Y. Chang felt it was "difficult to say whether South Koreans are obedient" just based on one incident. "Sure it can seem that way but it's only in hindsight that we now know that listening to the captain's orders was the wrong thing to do."

In the wake of the incident, some parents have raised the issue of whether kids should continue to be taught to obey adults without question, reported JoongAng Daily. A 32-year-old mother of a primary school pupil told the paper: "I'm not certain whether I should teach my child to listen to adults in an emergency - or to just run away as fast as he can."

* Raising the Sewol: Emotional time for kin of ferry victims
Family members view raising of Sewol, whose sinking 3 years ago killed over 300 people
The Straits Times, 24 Mar 2017

SEOUL • A South Korean ferry that sank nearly three years ago, killing more than 300 people - most of them teenagers on a school trip - was raised to the surface yesterday.

It was an emotional moment for families still looking for their missing children and a step towards closing one of the most traumatic episodes in South Korea's history.

Mr Lim Won Yo, 55, father of Yo Han, a student victim from Danwon High School, said his heart was pounding as he watched the ferry being lifted above water.

"But at the same time, I am frustrated. Nothing has been done for the past three years and now finally the ferry is being salvaged. If it was this easy, why has it not been salvaged for the past years? Why only now?" he said.

The ferry, the 6,825-ton Sewol, capsized and sank off the south-western tip of South Korea on April 16, 2014. The accident was the country's worst catastrophe in decades and contributed to the recent ouster of president Park Geun Hye.

The ferry went under while teenagers trapped inside sent text messages asking for help that never came or saying goodbye to their families.

A months-long underwater search of the ferry ended after 295 bodies were recovered. Nine people who were on board remain missing, including four students and two teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul.

Of the 324 students from the school on board for a field trip, 250 drowned. Bereaved families have demanded that the ferry be salvaged, hoping that the bodies of the missing would be found inside. They also hoped that the wreckage would reveal more clues as to what caused the ferry to sink.

Government investigators have blamed overloading, the ferry's structural imbalance and poor decisions by the crew for the disaster.

In 2015, the government announced plans to raise the ferry, contracting a consortium of Chinese and South Korean salvage crews for the US$76 million (S$106 million) operation. Their work has been painstakingly slow because of strong currents, frequent periods of bad weather, poor underwater visibility and the complicated engineering manoeuvres needed to raise the ferry, which was lying on its side about 40m below the surface.

Divers spent months placing 33 lifting beams underneath the ferry and tying cables to both ends. After days of testing, two salvage barges began pulling up the cables on Wednesday, raising the ferry slowly.

By yesterday morning, its mud-covered, rusting hull broke through the surface, and workers began fastening the ferry to the barges.

Family members of the victims watched the operation overnight from a government ship.

"I shouted when I saw the ferry being revealed above the water, thinking that my child can finally return home," said Ms Lee Keum Hui, mother of student victim Jo Eun Hwa, on the ship some 1.7km away from the scene.

In the next couple of weeks, the ferry will be transferred to a semi-submersible vessel, which will lift it out of the water completely and carry it to Mokpo, a port 87km away. There, officials will conduct a thorough search.


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