MV Sewol Case Study
The MV Sewol was a passenger ship capable of legally carrying 921 passengers and 987 tonnes of cargo. Originally operating in Japan under the name Ferry Naminoue, the MV Sewol had been taken over in 2012 by the Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd. in South Korea. The ship was renamed, refurbished and modified to accommodate extra passengers and, after passing all regulatory and safety checks, was approved for service in South Korea, where it had been running regular trips between Incheon and Jeju since March 2013.
On 15th April 2014 the ship’s usual departure time was delayed due to fog and it left Incheon at 21:00 instead of the scheduled18:30. The journey progressed as normal through the night but shortly before 9am the following morning the ship made a sharp turn of 45° and started to take on water. At this time the Captain was in his cabin and it was the Third Mate at the helm.
Link a: MS_Sewol_Track
The first contact with emergency services was from a student on board who telephoned the national emergency number for assistance at 08:52. Shortly afterwards, at around 08:55, the crew made contact with Jeju Harbour Affairs and told the passengers to stay in their cabins. The Jindo VTS, which was closer to the location of the ship than Jeju, managed to contact the crew of the Sewol at 09:07 and it was then confirmed that the ship was capsizing. At 09:18 the ferry was already heeling more than 50° and five minutes later the crew were told to instruct the passengers to wear life jackets, something they would have to do in person as the broadcast system was not functioning by that time.
At 09:30, following prompting from the Jindo VTS to quickly make a decision, the captain ordered evacuation of the ship. It is unclear how many passengers actually received the notification to evacuate. Lifeboats were dropped from nearby ships that were participating in the rescue and a few minutes later, at approximately 09:38, contact was lost between the ferry and VTS. Shortly after this, over 150 passengers and crew jumped from the ship into the sea.
By 11:18 only a small section of the hull, approximately 2m in height, was visible above water and by 09:00 the following day just 50cm of the bulbous bow could be seen.
When it left Incheon, the Sewol was carrying 476 people on board, including 325 students and teachers on a school trip. Only 172 people were rescued, with 276 confirmed dead and 12 still unaccounted for as of 17th June 2014. Of the crew, 22 out of 27 survived and their decision to abandon ship while so many passengers, mostly children, remained on board has been widely criticised.
There has been national outrage at the disaster and 15 of the Sewol’s crew, those responsible for navigation, are facing criminal charges. The Captain, First Mate, Second Mate and Chief Engineer have been charged with murder.
Initial investigations have suggested several factors contributed to the incident. The sharp turn that was made at approximately 08:48 is suspected to be the main instigator of the incident, causing the ship to rapidly list and drift sideways as control was lost. It would have quickly become unmanageable and reached a point where the crew were unable to right the vessel.
It is unclear why such a sharp turn was made but the Third Mate, who was in charge of the helm at the time, was relatively inexperienced and the area where the incident occurred was known to be treacherous. The Third Mate is reported as saying "The steering turned much more than usual. There are aspects where I made mistakes but for some reason the steering turned so much faster than usual."
Additionally, the Sewol was carrying 3608 tonnes of cargo which is vastly greater than its official cargo capacity of 987 tonnes. This overloading could have resulted in an unbalanced load and after the sharp turn was executed the weight of cargo shifting may have made the ship unstable, particularly if the cargo was not secured correctly, which has been suggested. This disregard of the safe cargo limits have resulted in investigations into the company that manages the Sewol.
There have also been questions raised about ballast water after some reports claim that it was carrying far less than was safe to make room for the additional cargo. This could have further reduced the stability of the ship and impaired the crew’s ability to correct any listing that occurred.
First responses to the accident have been the most heavily criticised. Delays in ordering passengers to abandon ship could have resulted in many passengers being unable to escape due to the severe angle of the ship when evacuation was finally ordered. The actions of the captain and other crew in abandoning ship before ensuring the safety of their passengers have also been attacked, particularly because under Korean law the captain is required to remain on board during a disaster. Furthermore, it took some time to get in contact with the correct emergency services as the crew initially contacted the harbour team at their destination port rather than the one closest to their location. A lack of training has been suggested as one of the reasons the crew’s responses were so inadequate.
Finally, the ship underwent modifications in 2012/13 before entering service in South Korea and many have questioned whether these alterations, including the addition of extra passenger accommodation, made the ship unstable and unsafe, particularly given the apparent lack of ballast water. It passed all necessary safety and regulatory inspections but the consequences of the renovations and implications for future regulations are under investigation.