|▲ A ferry "Sewol" which headed for Jeju Island with carring 476 people sinking off the South Korean coast on Arpil 16th. Photo: Yonhap News
Less than a month to go for the nation to remember the grief of May 18, another tragedy struck Korea on the morning of April 16, not far from Gwangju. A Japan made ship named ‘Sewol’ carrying 476 passengers mostly students (353) and mainly from the Danwaon High School on a school trip from Incheon to world famous holiday island ─ Jejudo met with the biggest sea tragedy in the recent history of Korea.
The passengers had just finished their breakfast and were preparing themselves for a great holiday at Jejudo which at one time Michael Jackson wanted to purchase. The ship mate decided to take a sharp turn to align the ship towards Jejudo. The ship due to this sharp turn tilted to one side, and to the horror of the passengers, also starting sinking. The young students many of whom were out of their home town for the first time could not believe it that a heavy ship of that size could turn turtle like paper boats they used to put in the water as small kids. They started sending frantic SMS/calls to their parents/guardians giving minute to minute account of water gradually coming into their cabins. The parents obviously decided to take immediate journey to Jindo by whatever fastest means of communication they could avail.
During this high drama, most of the senior passengers decided to wear life jackets and get ready to jump with the life boats stationed in the passenger ship. However, there were repeated announcements on the mike by the ship crew, “Not to do so and wait.” When the water started gushing in, some sensible passengers defied the orders of the ship crew and launched the rescue mission for their own survival. To their horror, they found that while they were instructed to stay put in the sinking ship, most of the ship crew themselves had escaped. To combat with this sudden event, the good Samaritans undertook the rescue which resulted in saving 174 helpless passengers.
The government has launched a massive rescue operation equally supported by scores of volunteers from far and wide to assist in rescue. At present more than 650 officials of engineers, doctors, technicians, and divers from navy. Besides a force of 150 sea men are busy in fishing against hope. Two of the results have been sacrificed their lives in the operations. The army would soon take over the operations. However, continued bad weathers of strong winds and high waves with 34oC temperature are marring the progress. So far 33 passengers have been declared dead, which 269 are still missing.
The government has already installed three heavy cranes of 80,000 tons capacity to lift the ship up to make a last effort to retrieve survivors trapped inside. But relatives of the survivors are not willing to allow the government to undertake the effort under the belief that since the ship’s one portion is still up and not sunk, lifting of ship by the cranes would remove all chances of survivors holding the last straw at the top portion of the ship protruding out of water. The relatives also opine that even their kith and kin may not be alive gushing of water inside their bodies will bloat the bodies prohibiting recognition for their last rites. They also quote that in the past survivors in such accidents have survived even after 60 hours. A similar accident took place in 1990 at Japan Sea and All survived. Due to bad weather and muddy water, the divers have not been able to cut the glass panes of the ship’s windows for intrusion inside. On the other hand, the rescuers have made all plans by detailed study on computers for lifting this massive ship by cranes and pumping high pressure inside, so that the ship could float after the proposed lift by the cranes.
It goes to the credit of the citizens that the whole nation is making fervent prayers for the survival of the children ─ The Nation’s Tomorrow. Volunteers and social service organization are camping at the Jindo to cater to the food and camping of hundreds of relatives of the passengers. The grieved nation has banned all entertainment (on TV as well) including May 18 Commemoration Day. Even the TV anchors now don black suits as a sign of condolence. All the TV channels and broadcasting services are just focusing on the rescue and praying fervently for the wellbeing of the passengers trapped inside the ship. Even the Korean youth who bagged a gold medal in the recent international gymnastic event has expressed that he is not happy with his ‘gold’ when the whole nation is mourning. It is rumored that the ship was too old (23 years) to be allowed to ferry such heavy load of 500 people and was carrying more than authorized pay load and that too severed heave vehicles (cars and trucks) than only 88 vehicles claimed by the ship owners.
The captain and the ship crew has not so far disclosed reasons for undertaking a sudden turn of 400 and more importantly abandoning the passengers and escaping for own safety first. The sea in the region is the roughest. In such a situation, it is logical to first jettison the freight (load) and help the passengers for their safety/rescue. These are universal SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for sequence of steps to be taken in such an accident. The insurance companies also must be taxing their brains to calculate the sum they have to pay for the unfortunates who never came back from a pleasure trip. The black box (recorder) in the ship and the statements of the crew to explain their conduct and action will answer main questions marks presently posing big faces at us.
It is heart renting to watch telecasted last rites and mothers crying for the loss of their precious and beloveds who were being raised to fen them in their old age. The biggest shock is the suicide committed by the vice principal of the Danwon High School who could not bear the shock of her pupils whom she would not see again ever. Let’s hope against hope and pray for the safety of 269 missing whose parents have glued their eyes on the ship deep in the sea at Jindo.
*This artilce was penned on last April 19th by Surgit Singh Puri who is an Indian studens of Regular Korean Language Course at Language Education Center, Chonnam National University.