Much remains unclear about the sinking of the Sewol, the 500-foot-long South Korean ship that was filled with high school students, but more details have emerged about yesterday’s shipwreck. Unfortunately, many of those details are grim. The death toll has risen to nine, and 287 passengers remain officially unaccounted for. Given that the ferry, whose sinking may have been precipitated by a collision with a rock or other underwater object, has been submerged in icy water for over an entire day, the final death toll of the sinking of the Sewol will almost certainly climb much higher. The only good news yet to emerge is that 179 passengers have been rescued – this has been confirmed, unlike reports that appeared shortly after the shipwreck that claimed that every student on board the ship had been saved. To the infinite disappointment of the families of the missing, these reports were false. Below we compile all the most important updates about the sinking of the South Korean ship, as well as piece together a narrative of what exactly went wrong.
Rescue operation continues
The massive effort to save passenger lives continues. Hundreds of divers and boats, along with dozens of aircraft, have been involved in the rescue operation. Despite low visibility, rainfall, and frigid temperatures in the water, the operation presses onward. There are likely air pockets in the upturned vessel, and indeed part of the hull is not yet underwater, meaning the ship is not entirely flooded. Thus, at least some passengers’ most pressing need, oxygen, is potentially being met, provided they were able to make it to an air pocket in the ship. At about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), however, the water is ice-cold, adding more urgency to a rescue operation that is already in full gear. Passengers could still be alive, but the window to save them is clearly shrinking.
The sinking of the vessel
Although it is remains to be determined what caused the Sewol to sink, one thing is clear: it happened extremely quickly. Survivors reported hearing a loud bang before the ship began to list, indicating that it might have struck an underwater object like a rock. This scenario is also consistent with the swiftness with which the vessel sank. Massive damage incurred by a collusion that lead to almost immediate flooding is the most likely way that the large five-story vessel was brought down so quickly. And because the ship sank so rapidly, any orderly escape plan was out of the question. Only a single lifeboat out of the 46 on board was deployed. According to survivors, people on board the ship were ordered to remain in their places when the ship started listing. In a “normal” emergency at sea, this is perhaps sound advice, but this might have been fatal counsel for the passengers who, because they didn’t abandon ship, were stuck on board when the vessel went under. Passengers who made the difficult decision to dive into the freezing waters against the advice being broadcast on the ship’s loudspeakers (but potentially in line with the advice of individual crew members) may have saved their lives in the only way possible.
We will learn much about the accident in the coming days, and inevitably (and understandably) focus will shift to who is to blame. When the Costa Cordia sank, attention almost immediately shifted whether Francesco Schettino, the ship’s captain, was responsible for the wreck. The captain of the Sewol, Lee Joon Suk, is facing possible charges of accidental manslaughter and negligence. These matters must be put on hold, though, as rescue workers frantically try to save as many lives as possible.