Ferry disaster blamed on cargo overloading, illegal redesign

October 6, 2014
Ferry 2

Sending shock waves through the nation, the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol sank in waters off the southwestern island of Jindo on April 16, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing. (Korea Times file)

By Kim Han-joo

SEOUL (Yonhap) — April’s deadly ferry sinking was caused by a combination of cargo overloading, an illegal redesigning of the ship to increase its cargo load and the steersman’s poor helmsmanship, the prosecution said Monday.

Announcing the outcome of a five-month-long probe into one of the nation’s worst maritime disasters, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) also said the Coast Guard’s botched initial response had led to a high death toll.

Sending shock waves through the nation, the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol sank in waters off the southwestern island of Jindo on April 16, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing.

“The disaster resulted from overloaded cargo, an illegal change in the ship’s structure, the steersman’s lack of ability to handle the ship and the botched initial response of Coast Guard officials,” said Cho Eun-suk, a senior prosecutor who was in charge of the investigation.

According to the results, the redesigning of the ship to increase its cargo load impaired its stability, and the poorly trained crew members made a sharper-than-recommended turn when the ship was passing through strong currents.

The ill-fated ferry was found to have been carrying 3,606 tons of freight and cars, more than three times its recommended maximum cargo, at the time of the accident. The ship’s operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co., reportedly depended on cargo to compensate for declining passenger revenue.

A patrol boat of the Mokpo Coast Guard, named the 123, had failed to move swiftly to save more lives, even though it was the first ship to arrive at the scene, prosecutors said.

Twelve Coast Guard officials at the vessel traffic service (VTS) on Jindo Island were also found to have neglected their duty to properly monitor the ferry as it sailed nearby and failed to follow proper procedures in registering the Sewol’s distress call.

Kim Kyoung-il, the captain of the Coast Guard, has been indicted on charges of negligence of duty, and removing some of the work records written on the day of the ferry sinking and filing new content, possibly out of fear that his rescue team’s poor initial response would be disclosed, prosecutors said.

“The prosecution judged that the 123 did not properly follow its disaster management manual,” said Cho. “(Kim) also did not take any proper measure as the person in charge of the scene.”

The prosecution said 88 people have been indicted on charges of allegedly committing various shipping irregularities that have also been cited as the principal cause of the disaster.

Legal steps have been taken to confiscate a total of 122. 2 billion won (US$114 million) worth of assets held by the owner family of the sunken ferry Sewol as part of the prosecution’s efforts to hold the fugitive family liable for the deadly disaster, it added.

The prosecution has asked for the temporary seizure of assets that are suspected to have been accumulated by deceased owner Yoo Byung-eun and his family members both at home and abroad through various acts of crime.

The move is part of the prosecution’s efforts to prevent the suspects from disposing of their assets before facing trial and to use the money to compensate the families of the victims, Cho said.

“The prosecution seeks to further confiscate the Yoo family’s hidden assets,” he said. “The prosecution will also investigate other additional potential causes behind the Sewol tragedy.”

The prosecution also positively ruled out the possibility that the boat hit a submerged rock or submarine, or was struck by a torpedo.

So far, 294 people, mostly high school students, have been found dead, with 10 missing and presumed dead.

Last week, rival parties reached a compromise on a controversial bill aimed at parsing the truth behind April’s deadly ferry sinking. Under the agreement, the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition New Political Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) agreed to jointly recommend four independent counsel candidates for President Park Geun-hye to appoint one of them to lead the investigation.