As sirens wailed and speakers gave orders for all passengers to go up on deck after the stranded ship began to roll from side to side, a group of 6-year-old children calmly unbuckled their seat belts and took hold of their bright orange life vests.
One of them had teary eyes, but soon stood up to escape. Fortunately it was all just a drill.
“Follow the adults. Do not put on your vest yet, just drag it until we are on deck, all right?” an instructor told the children.
The 15 people on board, including parents and children, took turns escaping down the 7-meter emergency slides.
Some had to jump into a pool of colorful balls -- as if it was the sea --because, in a real-life situation, there may not be time to wait for a rescue boat.
“Even adults who try escaping the ship for the first time find it difficult to stand on both feet or put on a life vest,” said Lee Min-jeong, an instructor at Gwangnaru Safety Experience Center.
|An elementary school student uses an emergency slide during a ship escape program at Gwangnaru Safety Experience Center in Seoul on Tuesday. Kim Da-sol/The Korea Herald|
The Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters invested 500 million won ($428,000) in a ship safety experience booth last summer, after growing calls from citizens in the wake of the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014.
The booth officially opens in March, but is currently being tested with people who make reservations in advance. At least six or seven groups of children and families participate in the safety experience program each day.
Lee Hee-soon, chief director of Gwangnaru Safety Experience Center, stressed that they tried to make the program -- South Korea’s first official ship safety experience -- as lifelike as possible.
“With tragedies such as the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014 and the continued earthquakes in Gyeongju last year, the necessity of operating down-to-earth disaster training programs for citizens was an urgent issue for us,” said Lee.
“Our ultimate goal is to educate citizens on how to overcome an emergency or to deal with a safety accident, so they can escape unfortunate situations anywhere, anytime,” added Lee.
The 30-minute ship escape training program begins with passengers boarding a life-size model of a ship.
Once all passengers have boarded, an instructor demonstrates how to put on a life jacket and the steps to follow when ordered to evacuate.
Then a video is played. The front window of the ship turns into a screen showing the sea to simulate being far from the coast.
But soon the ship strikes a submerged rock, and begins slowly tilting to one side.
“I was so nervous when the ship started to vibrate and leaned left. I did not know what to do, even forgetting to bring my life vest to deck,” said 6-year-old Kim Jin-gyu, who participated in the program.
Parents who brought children to the safety experience program said simple but fundamental instructions can allow children to quickly manage situations when accidents happen.
“Following continued natural disasters and safety accidents, it was unavoidable for me to bring my children during winter vacation, because they can remember what to do when a real accident happens,” said 37-year-old mother Hong Seo-yeon, who visited the center.
“(The experience program) was as real as if I were onboard. The ship even moved up and down, back and forth,” she added.
According to the center, the program can make the ship tilt to one side by up to 20 degrees, but an adult can find it difficult to stand even at a 10 degree angle.
“Adults who participate in this program often say they panicked when the ship started to shake, because they have never experienced walking out or standing when a ship starts to sink,” said the center official.
Other than the ship escape program, citizens can participate in experience programs for other disasters such as earthquakes, fires and typhoons.
While the center is frequented by children from kindergarten and elementary school, instructors say it is also important for parents and adults to come to the experience.
“The number of visitors seems to increase especially when certain safety accidents happen. But safety is not something you can prepare for prior to a specific event, rather it should be maintained on daily basis,” said instructor Lee.
The safety experience training sessions run at the Gwangnaru and Boramae centers and are free. The center is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Those who come as a large group can make a reservation at (02) 2049-4061.
By Kim Da-sol (firstname.lastname@example.org)