The first call to emergency services from the Sewol, the doomed South Korean ferry, that sank killing probably 302 people from its 476 passengers and crew on April 16, after it was damaged did not come from the captain or any of the crew, it came from a terrified young teenage boy identified as Choi who is believed to have drowned.
What a highly experienced captain, Lee Joon-seok and his crew were all still too dumb and paralyzed to see was immediately obvious to a doomed young high school student, “Save us! We’re on a ship and I think it’s sinking,” MBC TV reported
About 20 other children also had the brains and eyes to see what the captain could not and flooded emergency services with the same fatefully true message before the captain finally called for help, Reuter’s news agency reported.
Journalism, as the late Phil Graham, publisher of Newsweek, famously said, is the first, rough draft of history. It is always wise to avoid a rush to judgment. The reasons for the loss of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 with 239 people on board is a case in point. But sometimes, the essential facts scream out to the world from the earliest reports.
Of the 476 passengers and crew on board the doomed ship taking what should have been a perfectly routine trip from the port of Inchon in northwest Korea to the honeymoon resort island of Jeju, most of them were children from the same high school outing. The great majority of them have drowned.
The New York Times summed up the now well-established key facts with stunning succinctness in an editorial published on April 22.
“… (A)lready now we know that the image of (the ferry’s)s captain, Lee Jun-seok, walking to safety even as scores of high school students were struggling desperately for their lives in the capsized hull, has already entered the annals of shame.”
“The duty to put the safety of the travelers entrusted to a captain’s care ahead of his or her own is one of the most enduring traditions of travel on sea, air or land. … Yet Captain Lee and two-thirds of the crew survived, while two-thirds of the 476 passengers — 325 of whom were 16- and 17-year-old students from the Danwon High School near Seoul off on an excursion — are dead or missing.”
A captain is first and foremost responsible for the survival of his ship and the safety of his passengers. The South Korean government has already arrested Captain Lee and several members of his crew on charges of negligence. South Korea’s official Yonhap news agency also reported that Capt. Lee has also been charged with making “an excessive change of course without slowing down.”
Reuters reported on April 22 that government investigators have also launched a probe into the financial dealings of the Chonghaejin Marine Company, that operates the ferry, and into the Yoo family that owns it. Initially, Reuters said, the probe may focusing on possible illegal foreign exchange transactions and possible tax evasion.
Captain Lee was 69. That would be way beyond the mandatory retirement age for the captain of a commercial ship carrying hundreds of passengers in many companies or countries. Previous reports have revealed what appear to be states of paralysis followed by panic on the part of the captain, and of blind, fearfully unquestioning obedience by his senior officers.
When the ship was damaged a lowly third mate was steering it. The captain was in his cabin. Where were the other senior officers?
For nearly half an hour after the ship was clearly damaged and listing dangerously the captain did worse than nothing. He insisted on keeping most of the passengers under decks, the vast majority of them children, and just hoped the problem would go away.
The lifeboats were not deployed. Members of the crew are now trying to offer excuses for why they weren’t. The disaster happened in the morning, during daylight. Virtually everyone on the ship was up and awake. Yet all the passengers were not brought on to the deck and life jackets were not comprehensively issued to them.
There were ships very close by, according to apparently reliable reports. The Inchon-Jeju route was a much-travelled one. Most if not all the passengers could and should have been saved.
Most tellingly of all, the captain should have had no ridiculous illusions that his ship was “unsinkable.” It was a ferry. It was therefore unimaginably dangerous. Rapid sinking of ferries, often by night, have routinely caused hundreds of deaths at a time around the world over the past decade and more. “In December 1970, the Namyoung sank with 323 fatalities, and, in October 1993, the sinking of the Seohae took 292 lives,” the New York Times noted. Clearly, the necessary lessons from those disasters had either been forgotten or never been implemented.
If Captain Lee is convicted through due process of abandoning his passengers at a time of crisis, he will face a probable life sentence. That is still a far better fate than that of the hundreds of teenage children and their grieving families who trusted him.