As South Korea reels with the loss of scores of passengers in the ferry disaster, the actions of the crew have come under the glare. South Korean President Park Geun-hye yesterday denounced the move of the captain and some crew members, calling them unacceptable, incomprehensible and tantamount to murder. Park, who has led the nation in bemoaning the disaster and personally supervised rescue operations, is right to the extent that the captain should not have abandoned ship before all the passengers were evacuated. The ferry was also carrying 352 students of a school on an educational trip to the south of the country.
It is the most heinous crime in maritime law for the skipper to abandon ship. Not only is it illegal, it is also immoral and unethical to leave struggling passengers on a sinking ship being the head of a vessel invested with trust and responsibility.
As the ship ran into trouble, it sent a distress message asking for help. Transcripts of conversation of the crew with the control room point to chaos and indecisiveness. The speaker on the other side asks a crew member to make passengers wear life vests and ready them for evacuation. The crew member, however, insists that he can only do so if there are rescue vessels out there.
It is highly likely chaos led to wrong decisions on the troubled ferry. The skipper has said that he didn’t order immediate evacuation for fear of passengers drifting away.
That the captain abandoned ship is unpardonable, however his decision not to order immediate evacuation may be given the benefit of doubt. During an emergency like that on a ship or an aircraft, it is usually for the captain to decide the right course of action. Often, decisions taken after thinking on the feet are right for the moment, but look mistaken later.
The crew, as one sailor said, tried to stabilise the vessel, losing precious time. Passengers were asked to evacuate 40 minutes after the distress call. Meanwhile, the ship listed rapidly and sunk trapping scores under its huge frame.
This disaster has some similarities with the sinking of cruise liner Costa Concordia in 2012 in which the role of the skipper came in for sharp criticism. The ship at the time of the accident was passing very close to the shore off the Italian coast and sank after hitting rocks. As it listed heavily to one side, passengers were asked to put on life vests and wait for evacuation.
Like in the Korean accident, the skipper of Costa Concordia was slammed for being responsible for the death of 32 persons and was soon labelled a villain by the media.
Only a thorough probe will determine what led the South Korean ship to go down. The responsibility of the crew can only be fixed after that.