Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Abandonment by the 'Nicest Person'

"For those who are using our Incheon-to-Jeju ferry, I can tell you that the next time you return, it will be a safe and pleasant [experience]. If you follow the instructions of our crew members, it will be safer than any other means of transportation."
Captain Lee Joon-seok, 2010 interview statement to media 

"He was generous, a really nice guy. He was probably the nicest person on the ship."
"The captain is very old. But he should have made sure that the crew could escape before he escaped."
Oh Yong-seok, South Korean ferry Sewol helmsman

Mr. Oh very much appreciated the kind personal touches in his relations with the Sewol's captain, always asking how his wife and children were. And always prepared to give personal and professional advice. "Although we had no conversation about personal stuff, he was a nice guy" another helmsman on the Sewol Park Kyung-nam agreed, in speaking of the captain.

Both men, Park and Oh, were on the bridge with the captain as the ship sank, each of them thinking it might either be the captain's age or the fact that he had accidentally crashed into a bridge door, possibly injuring himself, that caused him to leave the ship so peremptorily, before any responsible ship's captain would, making for extenuating circumstances.

Captain Lee, along with at least ten of his crew are under arrest on suspicion of negligence and what seems obvious enough, that they abandoned people in need. The captain denied abandoning ship, insisting evacuation was delayed because of legitimate safety concerns. Those concerns, and the delayed action arising from them most unfortunately, led to the deaths of almost three hundred teens.

The sunken Sewol was a 7,000-ton ship, with a passenger capacity of 921. The owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., had three captains on their payroll, including Captain Lee, each taking control of Sewol ten days a month as another captain went on vacation, according to an official at Incheon Regional Maritime Affairs & Port Administration.

Captain Lee, according to a Chonghaejin official, had the longest sailing career of the three. He had sailed the route between Incheon and Jeju from 2006 to the present. "Pain in the left rib and in the back, but that was it", said Jang Ki-joon, director of the orthopedic department at Jindo Hankook University where Captain Lee was treated post-rescue.

In an earlier 2004 interview with Jeju Today during which time Captain Lee was captain of another Incheon-to-Jeju ferry, he spoke of a fright he had experienced working on ocean freighters before becoming a ferry captain. "The first ship I sailed on was a hardwood ship that flipped over in waters near Okinawa, Japan. The Japanese Self-Defence Forces saved me with their helicopters. If I hadn't been saved then, I wouldn't be here today", he reminisced.

That was more than enough of a brush with death to cause him to reconsider life on the high seas. "When I got caught in a storm at sea, I told myself I would never get on a ship again. But the human mind is cunning. After getting over one crisis, I would forget about such thoughts, and I've been sailing on ships until this day", he stated in that 2004 interview. Captain Lee, then was no stranger to a near-death experience at sea.

At the back of his mind there surely always lurked a certain type of caution and concern. He was fortunate, rescued by Japanese Self Defence Forces. A helicopter rescue was mounted and he lived to see another day, in fact many other days. In contrast, divers in South Korea are experiencing a dread search for bodies in wretched circumstances. Their trauma will be lifelong and far more awful than Captain Lee's.

Watch this video

They must grope their way cautiously through the corridors and cabins of the sunken vessel, for visibility is hugely compromised both by the dark water, the interior of the vessel and copious sediment that obscure light from flashlights. Darkness is almost total inside the ferry flipped upside down on the sea floor. Sightlessly, the divers must grope with sensitive hands on outstretched arms into the void in their search for bodies.

The water is freezing, it is a hostile, dark environment where bodies suddenly appear, floating in the murky water, buoyed by life-jackets, bloated by decomposition. Yet peering closely at the faces of what were once young, vibrant human beings one sees etched fear and shock. The divers must also be cognizant of compromises to their own security in their dives, that their lifeline, a 100-metre compressed hose could be snagged or slit as they venture deeper through the wreck.

Watch this video

"They can see the people's expressions at the instant" of sinking. "From the bodies' expressions, you can see they were facing danger and death", said Hwang Dae-sik, supervisor of a team of 30 divers for the Marine Rescue and Salvage Association. "Just imagine a room that is flipped. Everything is floating around, and it's hard to know exactly where they are."

"I got around by fumbling in the darkness to try to find things with my hands", one civilian diver, Cha Soon-cheol said. He spent five days searching underwater. He was exhausted from swimming against the current. They are the heroes of this monumentally sad tragedy. The villains are yet to be fully revealed.

Divers jump into the water on April 21 to search for passengers near the buoys which mark the site of the sunken ferry. Divers jump into the water on April 21 to search for passengers near the buoys which mark the site of the sunken ferry. Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd. no longer takes calls from the media. An official with the company refused to respond to questions from reporters posed to him from the company's Incheon office on Tuesday. Little wonder they have become mute. At last report it was revealed that the Sewol was carrying an estimated 3,608 tons of cargo; three times what an inspector stated it could carry with safety.

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