Three years ago, a sharp turn — and, perhaps, the usual Korean slapdash engineering and systems operation — caused an intercity ferry to roll. All ships roll in turns, but Sewol kept rolling, and sort-of-stabilized with a profound list… that guaranteed flooding, more list, and the vessel turning semi-turtle and slipping beneath the waves.
The crew did not cover themselves with glory, or even live up to the ancient honor code of the seaman. They saved themselves, or froze, disbelieving, in place. They ordered the passengers to return to their cabins and await rescue.
Rescue wasn’t coming.
The Republic of Korea did not have sufficient SAR resources for the conditions — naturally, it was dark, and the weather foul — or the sheer number of passengers. Few nations’ coast guards or lifesaving services would; they’re great at lifting a family of four from a dismasted yacht, or plucking the 8-man crew of a modern merchant ship from the sea, but hundreds of people would overwhelm anybody, and the ROKs’ lifesaving resources were overwhelmed.
Over 300 souls, most of them passengers, most of them children on a school trip, were extinguished.
This week, the ship was raised… to renew a disappointingly incomplete investigation (which so far has settled blame on the captain, who most certainly did not go down with his ship, and who has been threatened with the death penalty), and in hopes of recovering the remains of nine who are still missing.
The ferry, Sewol, was structurally unsound, overloaded and travelling too fast on a turn when it capsized and sank during a routine voyage off the southwest coast on April 16, 2014.
Bereaved families have been calling for the ship to be raised and for a more thorough investigation into the disaster. Officials also hope to find the last nine missing bodies.
Salvagers started to bring up the vessel, which has been lying on its side at a depth of 144 feet, late on Wednesday, and worked through the night.
Television pictures taken from the air early on Thursday showed the white 460-feet long hull, coated in mud and sediment, breaking above the surface, flanked by winching barges.
“The work needs to be done very cautiously,” Lee Cheol-jo, an official at the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries, which is in charge of the operation, told a briefing.
It’s a hell of a thing, both that this is necessary, and that it is possible. A Clive Cussler tale come to life, but with no lost treasure or happy ending. And consider this:
A Chinese salvage company has fitted 33 beams beneath the hull with 66 hydraulic jacks inching the ship up.
There was a time that your go-to guys for marine salvage would have been British or Dutch. Then, there was a time where the know-how rested unquestionably in American firms.
Now, if you want to raise a ship from the depths and solve a mystery, you look to China. (We can barely build warships, any more, and no US merchant ship is ever built except for some government boondoggle). The raising of Sewol is a true extreme-engineering case, and her Chinese salvors are to be congratulated. (Not that they’re done yet, but they’re on track for mission completion).
There’s a lot to be learned from this accident, but we wonder if the highly politicized environment in the Republic of Korea is conducive to such learning. In our experience, only disinterested and professional investigators have any real hope of getting to the bottom (no pun intended) of such a complex accident. Adversarial proceedings and public hearings are almost certain to be useless, at least in terms of understanding what happened, and preventing next time.
Thereby guaranteeing a next time.