A disaster began to quietly unravel on the morning of April 16, 2014, when the ‘MV Sewol’ ferry, bound for Jeju Island in South Korea carrying 476 passengers, including 325 students on a school trip began to sink.
Mobile phone footage records the calm but uncertain atmosphere on board the cursed ferry. Isn’t this the kind of situation when they tell you, ‘Stay put; it will be O.K.,’ and they run away for their lives?” A teenage girl is talking with a group of friends, in footage that seems to be cell-phone video. The girl in the video recalls a subway accident in which passengers were similarly told to stay put. “But only the people who didn’t follow the order survived.” The footage shows that the scene on board was surprisingly calm.
Choi Duk-ha, a Danwon High School student made the first emergency call at 8:52 KST, when the operator asked Choi for the ship’s location, the innocent student replied he does not know the exact location and upon further investigation from the operator passed on the vessel’s name. Later through radio communications the authorities were notified at about 08:58 KST while the ferry continued to sink.
Out of 476 passengers and crew, 304 died in the disaster, including around 250 students from Danwon High School (Ansan City). A 172 passengers and crew survived the disaster.
Almost an hour after the first emergency call, at about 09:47 KST, the captain jumped a railing, landed on a patrol boat, and abandoned the ship without giving the ‘Abandon Ship’ orders. Over the next few hours, the rescue operation was never intensified— Most passengers could have been rescued if the Korean Coast Guard had quickly responded to the students’ calls. But the Coast Guard neglected its duty.
On 19 April, Captain Lee Jun-seok, the captain of the ferry was arrested on suspicion of negligence of duty, violation of maritime law and other infringements as he abandoned the ship with passengers still aboard the ferry, while South Korean law explicitly requires captains to remain on the ship during a disaster. Two other crew members, a helmsman and the third mate, were also arrested on suspicion of negligence and were charged with manslaughter.
By 26 April, twelve further arrests were made with the whole crew responsible for navigation in detention.
On 15 May, Captain Lee, First Mate Kang Won-sik, Second Mate Kim Young-ho, and Chief Engineer Park Gi-ho were indicted on charges of homicide through gross negligence (also described as murder), which carry a potential death penalty. The other eleven crew members face lesser charges of abandoning the ship and ship safety offences.
Three crew members, Park Ji-young, Jeong Hyun-seon, and Kim Ki-woong, were credited by the survivors with staying aboard the ferry to help passengers escape. All three went down with the sinking vessel.
Yoo An-sil, the mother of Yu Mi-ji, one of the passengers who died in the sinking, describes a final phone conversation with her daughter with immense regret. “I told her to follow the teacher’s guidance,” she says. “I should have told her to escape quickly. But I didn’t know the situation.”
Here is a video which shows what actually happened inside the M.V. Sewol: