Over 250 missing in South Korean ferry crisis; controversy deepens

It has only been a little over a month since the world was stunned by the disappearance of Malaysian Air Flight 370, but we’re already faced with yet another catastrophe. Last Wednesday, in a story filled with despair and controversy, a ferry carrying nearly 500 people began to sink off the coast of South Korea. Over half of the ferry’s passengers were high school students. At latest count, 29 have been declared dead, with still over 270 passengers missing.

Unfortunately, the grief and compassion that follows such a tragic story are being overshadowed by numerous controversies. The captain of the ferry, Lee Joon Seok, has been arrested with multiple charges, after evidence grew that not only was the captain partially responsible for the sinking, but also negligent in his handling of the situation.

Authorities claim that Lee failed to decrease the speed of the ferry during a turn along the route, causing the ship to tilt to an angle from which it could not recover. Lee claimed that during the incident, he had left his post at the helm to “tend to something” inside his cabin. The third mate, who Lee had given temporary responsibility, has also been arrested.

As the crew scrambled to right the ship, the captain announced that passengers should stay in their rooms with lifejackets on, but not to evacuate. There is a “critical angle” from which a ship can no longer be righted, but even after the ferry had reached that point, the captain ordered one last attempt to restore balance, rather than begin evacuating. Once the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, the ship was already at such a steep angle that crew were unable to go to passenger’s rooms to help them escape. This also led to the delay of lifeboats being deployed, a number of which were unusable once the evacuation began.

A passenger who was rescued and treated for injuries claimed more lives could have been saved. “We were wearing life jackets,” said Koo Bon-hee. “We had time. If people had jumped into the water…they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out.”

In addition, Lee violated the “age old and internationally recognized rule” that a captain must remain with his ship until the passengers and his crew have been safely recovered. Lee was one of 174 who were rescued by the South Korean Coast Guard. Officials have also had to accept their share of the blame, after miscommunication and false reports added further injury to an already tragic event. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, the South Korean coast guard reported to CNN that 368 people had been rescued from the boat, including every single high schooler, and the death count had been set at 2. They later had to retract that report, as the number of missing and casualties quickly rose.

On top of misinformation from officials, family and friends of the passengers also had to cope with fake text messages, claimed to be sent from the boat as it sank. Messages from students claiming to still be alive as the ship continued to slowly sink were circulated by media outlets, giving false hope to loved ones. These messages turned out to be a cruel hoax. South Korean authorities have said that whoever was behind the messages will be prosecuted to the fullest extent.

Unfortunately, these types of catastrophes are becoming all too common in today’s world.  In the aforementioned Malaysian Flight disaster, families had to wait weeks before recieving any concrete information about the fate of the passengers. There should be no justifiable excuse for the mishandling of these situations, giving no answers, or even worse, false answers. The families of victims deserve better than the uncertain and half-hearted answers they have recieved.