[Editorial] Preventing disasters

By Korea Herald

Nation should overhaul safety system

  • Published : Apr 20, 2014 - 20:07
  • Updated : Apr 20, 2014 - 20:07
Accidents can happen and there could be calamities for which little can be done or explained, as in the latest case of the missing Malaysian airliner. The sinking of the ferry Sewol is not such a disaster, which deepens the pain over the loss of the lives of innocent people, many of them high school girls and boys.

While in shock and immense grief, many Koreans feel a sense of deja vu as they follow the news reports about the sinking of the ferry that carried as many as 476 passengers.

It appears quite similar to past mass disasters in which a combination of human error and the lack of an effective system to prevent and cope with these incidents worsened the situation. If disaster on this scale continues to happen, there may well be fundamental problems with our safety systems.

As divers and rescue personnel continue to fight strong currents and murky water to search the inside of the sunken ship, we are beginning to understand why the ship capsized and why so many people failed to make it out.

The most unfortunate thing was that the Sewol and its passengers had an utterly incapable and irresponsible captain and crew. Had they acted how any ordinary, average maritime officer, not a hero, would have in such a situation, many more passengers could have jumped off the ship in time and gotten picked up by boats that responded to the distress call.

The captain and two other crew members were arrested on Saturday, three days after they abandoned their own ship, leaving hundreds of young students and passengers behind. It still is a mystery why they kept advising the passengers to stay inside their cabins for about two hours even after the ship began listing.

The captain, one of whose first jobs on land was to dry his bank notes, deserves punishment and more crew members are set to be charged as a result of the ongoing investigation. But any punishment would do little to appease the family members of the victims and the entire nation, which has been grieving over the catastrophe.

It is certain that the Sewol’s crew lack not only the capability to operate a ferry that can carry up to 956 passengers and make proper judgment calls in an emergency but also the minimum level of professional ethics and sense of responsibility.

The lack of an effective safety system on the part of the company that runs the Sewol and maritime authorities should be blamed as well. It is clear that they did not make the right pre-departure safety checks, given that only two of the 46 rescue boats were put into the sea and there were only 270 life jackets.

Then will there be anyone who believes that the ship’s crew followed the rule obliging emergency drills every 10 days? We are left speechless when we hear that the company lied about the number of cars loaded onto the ship and that some crew did not know how to set off the fire alarm.

There are many more problems and questions that should be answered. Many of them we have encountered in similar mass disasters, like the 1993 Seohae Ferry sinking that claimed 292 lives and the 1995 collapse of Sampoong Department Store in which 501 died.

This shows that the government has done little to make the nation safer. We remember that one of President Park Geun-hye’s first jobs was to rename the Ministry of Public Administration and Security to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. It turned out that the change was in name only.