The sinking of the Sewol: common sense versus trust

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Michelle Banayan, graphics editor

The Sewol, a South Korean ferry on its way to Jejo County on an island off the coast of South Korea, was carrying 476 passengers when it capsized on April 16. Out of the hundreds of people on board the ferry were 325 high school students taking a field trip, most aged 16 and 17. As of today, the death toll of this incident has just surpassed 100 at 104 passengers, with 198 still missing.

There are quite a few components to the story of the Sewol incident that contribute to the magnitude of this atrocity. For one, why was the third mate, Park Hyun-kul, inexperienced with reckless and cruel waters, the crew member operating the ferry? What was Captain Lee Joon-seok doing at this time instead of monitoring his vehicle? Why did he tell the passengers to stay on board as he neglected his ship and fled immediately?

Perhaps the last question is the one that makes this whole story the most appalling.  Transcripts from text conversations with the students and their parents show that the parents urged their kids, with life vests on, to try to escape the ferry as soon as possible, while the crew confined them to the inside of the ship as the ferry rapidly sank.

The captain of the Sewol may have been trained well in the past to deal with a capsizing ferry.  However, when the emergency finally occurred, he chose to not only ignore the international maritime law of staying on board until all passengers are safe, but he fled while committing the murderous act of telling all passengers, most of whom had their entire lives ahead of them, just like us, to stay indoors and wait for security.  He claimed that having the passengers evacuate into the waters would have been chaotic due to its frigid temperatures and rapid current. But by the time the crew realized evacuating the ship would be the best option, it listed too much for anyone on board to move.

It is not that those in charge should never be trusted, but in a life or death situation, common sense may be the most reliable option. Had the passengers listened to their instincts and evacuated the ship, or at least waited on board the ship on the deck versus inside the cabins, there may have been many more survivors and a substantially lower death toll.  Despite the fact that the waters were cold, and still continue to be as security search for survivors, it makes much more logical sense it’s better to be cold and have adrenaline pushing you forward, rather than be trapped in a sinking ship waiting for assistance with hundreds of other panicking passengers, as one student survivor did.

What makes officials such as Joon-seok so deserving of trust from everyone else under him?  What about people like him makes others compromise their basic survival logic during these high-stress and crucial times, having them inevitably throw out all the common sense they knew out the window when it is most needed?  The matter of fact is that in major crises such as the sinking of the Sewol, not only do people below the officials, the passengers, lose their sense of practicality and fundamental logic, but so do the officials.  Periods like these result in less blood flow to the brain, leading to illogical conclusions and panic; and thus, people who should usually be highly regarded due to special training, great education, etc. revert right back to the primitive state of shock and confusion like any other human being and many times cannot make the most educated decision that they are capable of making otherwise.

Too often, people put their full trust in officials, personnel who are trained and experienced, especially for emergencies such as this.  However, these personnel panic just like the rest of us – they’re human, too – and sometimes it is forgotten that their judgement may also be skewed when put into an emergency situation, no matter how much prior training they have received.

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