South Korean ferry saga a tale of government blunders

AP News
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Posted: Mar 29, 2017 5:21 AM
South Korean ferry saga a tale of government blunders

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — From a botched rescue job to severely wrong death counts, South Korea's government has been blamed for a series of egregious errors in its handling of the 2014 sinking of the Sewol ferry, which killed 304 people in one of the country's worst disasters.

Mistakes have continued three years later, even as workers pulled off a Herculean effort to lift the corroding 6,800-ton ship from the sea and place it on a heavy lift transport vessel that will carry it to port.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries made a startling announcement on Tuesday, saying salvage crews had found bones near the ship's wreckage that were likely from some of the nine passengers still missing. Hours later, officials said what was found were actually animal bones, leaving grieving relatives to further question their competence.

A look at the glaring blunders the government has made before and after the ferry's sinking, which provoked outrage so strong that it contributed to the recent ouster of Park Geun-hye as president:

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DOOMED BY CORRUPTION

The Sewol was perhaps doomed by a culture that has long ignored public safety standards and regulatory failures, even before it set sail for the southern resort island of Jeju, carrying hundreds of teenagers on a school trip.

Investigators from the Board of Audit and Inspection, or BAI, found that the ferry's crew had overloaded the vessel, including loading 185 cars when it had room for only 97. Crew members also refused to properly fasten vehicles and containers so they could squeeze in more cargo.

Although the ferry's captain reported 657 tons of cargo, prosecutors said that the real amount exceeded 2,140 tons.

According to investigators, the excessive cargo and improper storage prevented the ferry from regaining balance after it made a sharp turn before it capsized on April 16, 2014.

Port officials at Incheon, where the Sewol departed from, permitted the ferry to leave based on cargo data the captain provided, without inspecting the cargo themselves, the BAI said.

The BAI also found that employees of the ship's owner had treated Incheon coast guard officials to drinks and free trips in 2013 to help the Sewol pass safety checks.

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WASTED RESCUE WINDOW

The ferry's crew lost control after making a sharp turn at around 8:50 a.m. in the notoriously violent waters near the southwest island of Jindo.

Rescue officials then missed a series of opportunities to save most of the people until the ship fully submerged underwater at 11:50 a.m.

The coast guard, which received a distress call from the ferry's crew shortly after the ship began to drift, was required to guard the waters that the Sewol passed through with at least one large patrol vessel.

But on the day of the sinking, the only vessel nearby was a small patrol boat whose nine-member crew was woefully undertrained and lacked basic communication equipment.

The boat did not arrive at the Sewol until 9:30 a.m. Rescue workers then wasted further time with indecisiveness.

They failed to contact the ferry's crew and instruct them to give an evacuation order, let alone getting inside and pulling people out. When other rescue vessels and helicopters arrived, it was too late.

Rescue workers saved 172 people, including the ferry's captain. He is now serving a life prison sentence after a court found him guilty of committing homicide through "willful negligence" because he fled without issuing an evacuation order.

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WRONG DEATH COUNTS

In the hours after the sinking, the government created massive public confusion by releasing wrong statistics on death tolls and the number of survivors.

After poor communication with coast guard officials, the Ministry of the Interior, which ran the government's emergency task force, announced the number of survivors at 368 as of 2 p.m. on the day of the sinking. At 4:30 p.m., the ministry downgraded the number of survivors to 164.

The coast guard knew the number was wrong just before the ministry released it, but didn't notify the ministry until about 30 minutes after the announcement, according to investigators.

The ministry also contributed to the spread of a false news report that all of the students on the ferry had been rescued shortly after the sinking.

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PRESIDENTIAL FALLOUT

Park, the recently ousted president, continues to defend against accusations that she was out of contact for several hours on the day of the sinking.

Her critics expressed outrage after she appeared at the emergency task force's headquarters at 5 p.m. and asked a question many saw as clueless: "Is it so difficult to find the children when they are wearing life vests?"

The allegations that Park was out of contact were included in an impeachment bill lawmakers passed against her in December, amid broader corruption suspicions.

Park was formally removed from office by a court ruling earlier this month. She is now under criminal investigation over suspicions that she conspired with a confidante to filch from companies and allow the friend to secretly interfere with state affairs.