It is now over a week since the ill-fated South Korean ship, Sewol, sank. With hopes of any more rescues of the still missing passengers dwindling, questions on what happened take centre stage.
What caused the ship to suddenly grind to a halt, and immediately start sinking?
How come so few of those on board were rescued despite the communication gadgets being still functional and rescue teams arriving on the scene before the ship had gone underwater?
The superstitious may find a link between this and the Titanic’s sinking which incidentally happened 102 years ago on April 14, two days before the Sewol sank. Comparisons between the two ships came up almost as soon as the news broke, and before the ship even submerged.
But if the Titanic taught the world anything, it is that, yes ships however big do sink and there is always a reason besides fate. And sometimes it happens fast, too fast to save majority of the passengers.
Livescience.com says the sudden sinking of huge vessels such as the 6825-tonne (6.8 million kilogrammes) Sewol could be brought about by a number of things including running aground and hitting the ocean floor or cargo shifting, causing it to capsize to one side.
The first theories
The first pictures of the now sank ship show it severely tilted with one side already in the water.
From a transcription of a conversation between a member of crew and control towers on two islands near the location of the accident, the ship tilted to one side sharply and started taking in water.
“The ship is too tilted for people to move,” the crew member who has not yet been identified, told the control tower just a few minutes after what is said was the time the ship ground to a halt.
What later emerged as the first distress call made by one of the students to the fire department which in turn forwarded him to the coast guard, gives an idea of how fast the situation escalated.
“Help us. We are on a ship and I think it is sinking,” Reuters reported quoting him from Yonhap news agency which first broke the news.
Initial reports said survivors and a number of the 339 high school students on board who managed to communicate to their parents via text reported hearing a loud noise or a bang.
“The ship ran into something and it’s not moving,” a message sent by one student to a parent read in part as reported by BBC.
This fuelled speculation that the ship hit something that tore out a part of the hull causing it to start taking water. A reef or the ocean floor were suspected to be the problem but the theory has since been discredited as the captain reportedly denied hitting any reef. By the end of last week that theory had pretty much been argued out.
ABC news reported last Friday that while the route the ship was taking was known to have rocky shoals and shallow reefs, South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said the ship sank at a place the water was over 30 metres deep and the ship’s hull was not anywhere close to the ocean floor.
Reuters reported the now disgraced captain, Lee Jun-Seok, who was among the first people to abandon ship, mumbled something to the effect that there was a mistake while executing a turn and steering gear which might have broken. There have been several reports of the 20-year-old Japan-made ship making a series of sharp turns just before it started foundering.
Apparently, the ship’s Captain was not at the controls at the time things went awry and the ship was being steered by an inexperienced 26-year-old third mate who it turns out had not navigated those waters before. Only identified by her surname Park, she has since denied making any sharp turns saying she made a normal turn but the ship turned too much.
A story carried by The Independent on Tuesday reported that investigators have found out the ship did not turn sharply before capsizing and there had been an error analysing the first data as it was incomplete. The ship reportedly made a gentler turn before it capsized.
The latest theory
The line now seems to be taking a theory brought forward earlier but was ignored, of renovations to expand the ships capacity affecting the ship’s centre of gravity. Arirang News gives a detailed explanation of why this theory is more plausible saying with the renovations, the ship’s capacity for cargo was just 1,000 tonnes (one million kilogrammes) but it is believed to have been carrying about 3600 tonnes (3.6 million kilogrammes) when it went down.
These reports take us back to where we started. It is still a mystery of what happened to that ship that sent many to death.
It may take a while to figure out what caused the disaster. In the meantime, it holds the world at attention.
Come to think about it, in that way, the Sewol’s disaster is similar to the famous Titanic that sank 102 years ago.
what went wrong?
The president of South Korea Park Geun Hye did not mince her words when she visited the relatives of the dead and missing. She said the actions of the captain and other crew members during the disaster were akin to murder. Her comments more or less placed the 104 confirmed deaths and possibly 150 others still believed to be trapped within the ship on the captain and his mates.
The now infamous Joon Seok is said to have plotted a route out of the recommended one.
According to the messages some of the students sent to loved ones, they were ordered to stay put in their cabins even as it became more apparent the ship was in serious trouble.
By the time the first responders arrived about 30 minutes after the ship made a mayday call to nearby coast guards, the ship was almost vertically on its starboard side and passengers who had been asked to stay wherever they were, were trapped and unable to move.
Divers who have been bringing up bodies since they broke through the submerged hull have reported how they have found most of bodies converged on the second and third decks hinting that the passengers may have gathered in certain places as the ship went down.
Only two of the 46 lifeboats on the ferry were deployed and criticism poured out on the captain’s claims that he delayed giving an order to abandon ship as he was concerned the passengers were unlikely to survive in the very cold water and strong currents until they were rescued.
CNN reported a first mate to one of the distress calls first responders as saying, “If the passengers had jumped into the water sooner, more people could have been rescued.”
Recent passenger ship disasters
The MS Estonia. The ship was sailing from Estonia across the Baltic sea en route to Sweden with 989 passengers on board on September 28, 1994. About 20 minutes into the voyage the ship tilted to starboard side. In moments it was practically impossible to move inside the ship which was fast taking water.
A power outage made it impossible for the ship to give its position delaying rescue. Only those who were on the deck were rescued. There were only 137 survivors.
MV Le Joola. This was a Senegalese government owned vessel plying the country’s southern cost and its capital Dakar. At around 11.00pm on September 26, 2002 it ran into a storm around the Gambian coast and capsized dumping cargo and passengers into the sea.
Le Joola was designed to carry 580 passengers but on this trip had around 2000. Only one lifeboat had been deployed with 25 people. Over 1800 perished in the sea and majority of those who survived the sea survivors were rescued by fishermen who responded in the night. Government rescue teams only showed up the next morning.
Al Salaam Boccacio. On the of February 2, 2006 a fire broke out on the ferry which was heading from Saudi Arabia enroute to Egypt .The ferry then sank killing over 1000 of the estimated 1400 passengers. The ship reportedly sailed on for 90 minutes since the first sign of trouble which had occurred just a little ways after leaving port in Saudi Arabia.
Princess of the Stars. This ship was carrying over 800 hundred passengers to the Philippine city of Cebu on June 21, 2008 when it ran into a typhoon and sank. Only 32 people survived, and majority of the bodies of those presumed dead or missing were never found.
What if this had happened in Uganda?
How would Uganda cope if a similar incident occurred to a vessel 2.7 kilometres from the shore of one of the large water bodies within the country?
The commander of Marine division Uganda Police Service Senior Superintendent Engineer James Apora says his department has very highly trained divers and diving equipment for water rescue operation. “That is how we were able to respond to the Lake Albert incident last month and rescued 108 and eight bodies within the time were able to,” he said.
But he admits that there are challenges that would make it difficult to respond to a water disaster on the scale of the South Korea ferry sinking.
The divers Apora can put his money on are 25, highly accomplished deep sea divers and they are the ones who are spread over the major water bodies in the whole country. They would be an integral part of any rescue operation on water, be it in rescue or body recovery. Needless to say, they are spread thin. So are the speed boats which are meant to be dispatched on an emergency response. Apora says the department got two new ones recently.
He talks of a lack of proper landing facilities in many areas the response and rescue teams are stationed which is why the boats are not dispatched there. So for those far off bases, the marine team makes do with the 75 horse power engines. There are the ones the team of Police divers used in the Lake Albert incident.
“We also try to work with the local communities and our divers are always ready to work with the available equipment,” he said.
The emergency response teams are currently stationed at the gazette landing sites in major water bodies. “But many of the landing sites that have been established in recent years have not been gazette and we have no stations there. But we are in most of the islands on lake Victoria and the major landing sites as well as near ferry docking points,” said Apora.
Distance between response stations is vast. Lake Albert which had the most recent casualty has only one station. Even Lake Victoria which has several stations owing to its numerous landing sites and islands is not nearly properly covered. “As you know some of these places are very far apart,” said Apora.
And the final nail in the coffin, an air response component to the emergency response by the 15 year old division is non-existent. We are just working to have an air rescue aircraft,” said Apora.