17 Apr 2014

South Korea ferry crash shows ‘sickening’ safety flaws

As rescue efforts continue, experts tell Channel 4 News more disasters on this scale are inevitable unless ships get much safer.

Rescue teams are still frantically searching increasingly choppy waters off the coast of South Korea, in the hope of finding survivors of the ferry disaster.

At least 287 people, many of them teenagers on a school trip, remain unaccounted for after the South Korean ferry capsized and sank on Wednesday. Nine people have been found dead, and 179 rescued.

Rescue teams have tried unsuccessfully to pipe oxygen into the hull of the ship, where it is hoped survivors are clinging on to life in “air pockets” in parts of the submerged vessel.

But anguished families gathered on shore are increasingly angry about how the disaster happened at all. There is still no official explanation for the sinking, which happened on a well-travelled route. Moreover, there is a suggestion that the captain of the ship jumped off early on in the disaster, abandoning his passengers.

A man identified as the ferry’s captain appeared on television earlier, saying: “I am really sorry and deeply ashamed.” He is being questioned by police.

They are making ships now which are arguably not even as safe as they used to be. Allan Graveson, Nautilus International

Shipping experts told Channel 4 News there were multiple theories about what could have caused the initial problems with the ship, from a sudden gust of wind to hitting unexpected rocks. Many of the passengers who have escaped report feeling a sudden jolt before the ship began to sink.

However, they said the speed with which it sank – it took just two hours to slip beneath the surface almost completely, during which it is thought some passengers managed to send heartbreaking farewell text messages to relatives – was indicative of a much more serious issue with the safety of passenger ships.

Allan Graveson, senior national secretary of the maritime union Nautilus International, told Channel 4 News: “We have had enough of this loss of life. It’s sickening. They are making ships now which are arguably not even as safe as they used to be.”

Safety regulations
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the UN agency responsible for the safety of shipping. It declined to comment on individual incidents, but pointed out that the majority of countries involved in international shipping have signed up to the most important international treaties governing shipping safety.

One of the major agreements is SOLAS, or the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. It was first proposed after the sinking of the Titanic in 1914, and has been regularly amended since, particularly after major disasters, to tighten up the rules.

It is worth pointing out that these guidelines only cover ships on international voyages - not domestic.

He said that passenger ships are simply not built to withstand any kind of adversity which they may hit. There are two tiers of regulation for international shipping, most of which were brought in after major disasters of this type.

The regulations for European waters are more stringent, but even these regulations only protect against a one in 20 year chance of an accident which claims 1,000 lives, Mr Graveson said – pointing out that with “marginal investment”, this could be brought up to a one in 100 year chance.

“We will not build a ship which does not sink, and we will not stop lives being lost, sadly,” he said. “But by god, we can reduce the number.”

We know accidents happen’

The problem, he said, is what is known as “residual” or “damage” stability. With passenger ships and ferries, often this can be very poor – meaning that the ship, once damaged, quickly begins to list and then sinks. Car ferries in particular are prone to this: in the same way as water on a flat metal tray only needs to be slightly tilted before it moves quite violently, once water enters the vehicle deck, it can quickly destabilise the vessel.

This happened in 1987 with the Herald of Free Enterprise, which capsized moments after leaving the port of Zeebrugge, killing 193 passengers and crew. This accident, alongside a similar tragedy when the Estonia sank in 1994, led to a number of safety improvements for these types of ship.

But more must be done across the board, Mr Graveson said.

“Wouldn’t it be better to build a ship which sinks slowly?” he said. “It’s like air bags in cars. We know crashes happen, so we build in these safety features. It’s to save lives. Why not on ships?”

The problem is cost, he said, and retrofitting ships is prohibitively expensive. But he says disasters like this one must push the international shipping industry into taking steps to improve the safety of all new ships, when it would be much cheaper – otherwise more tragedies like this will take place.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) said it would not comment on specific incidents.


Meanwhile, the search for survivors goes on.

Bruce Reid, chief executive of the International Maritime Rescue Federation, told Channel 4 News the search would be increasingly difficult as weather conditions worsened.

“It’s really tough. The vessel’s gone down quite deep, so it’s quite hazardous for divers and the visibility conditions are very poor. They will have to measure up the risk versus the opportunity. Their one mission will be to, if they can, to get in and find out if they are in there or at least to establish if there are survivors,” he said.

He said the search would last as long as there was the possibility of saving some people, adding that the possibility of pumping in oxygen to the ship to help people breathe was an option, if a potentially difficult one.

“It’s challenging because of the sheer volume of the operation. A co-ordination centre, shore-side responders, co-ordinators, aircraft, designated search and rescue units, vessels of various sizes, rescue helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and on top of that vessels of opportunity – fishing ships, charter boats pulled in, shore-side teams, medical teams, welfare support for the family, transport… it’s a massive task.

“When something like this happens, the scale of it is what really gets people.”