Remember the Sewol

April 21, 2020
Kurt Cordice
Enigmatic Editorial

A reflection on the tragedy of the Sewol 6 years later, remembering the lives that were lost and the tragic reminder of the critical importance of leadership.

The Sewol ferry as it began to capsize

Among a few pins and buttons I display on my backpack, there is a yellow ribbon pin. The yellow ribbon means different things in different countries.  This particular yellow ribbon is in memory of those lost during the Sewol Ferry disaster in South Korea.  

April 16th, 2020 marked 6 years since the disaster.  

I was in Korea when this disaster took place, and vividly remember when I first saw the images of the Sewol.  I was seated in a small local eatery having lunch when I saw the image on TV.  I remember saying out loud, “How did they manage that?”.  It was a ship of fair size, and from its position, I had assumed they had somehow run it aground in the shallows.  It looked like a rescue was underway.  Much of the ship seemed to be above water at the time.  There were few people waiting for rescue, and it seemed to be a routine report.  So, they must have already gotten most people off the boat.  

It was not until I was with my students that afternoon that I had a better idea of what was happening. Though the news and official government statements were slow to report the true level of what was happening, social media was not.  Many of the passengers on the ferry were highschool students, on a school trip to the south island of Jeju.  In fact, one of my students was from the area, had attended that high school and knew people who were closely affected by the disaster.  

As the truth of what was happening leaked out to the masses, what had looked to be a situation under control was actually a situation of chaos. It turned out the footage shown to the public that day was from much earlier in the morning.  The situation had quickly deteriorated and had, in fact, become a horror story.  

After only 1 hour and 20 minutes, only the bow was left above the water.

In the most popular theory, a combination of a purposefully overloaded cargo hold, combined with an inexperienced person on the helm resulted in the vessel going through a slow but steady capsizing event in deep water.  To make matters worse, instead of the captain following standard protocols of getting his passengers into life jackets and on deck, ready to evacuate, he ordered everyone back to their cabins.  From the time of the distress call, the boat was rolled within 1h20min.   

At final count, only 172 people were rescued from the ship, out of a total of 476 people on board.  

304 people drowned that day.  250 of those drowned were children.

The captain and some of the crew were among some of the first rescued.   

With the event over, the true horror began to surface as the days passed.  High school students, who were trapped inside, had called their parents from the sinking ship for help.  Parents advised the students to wait for help to arrive, never thinking that their children had been abandoned by the captain.  It was not long before those phone calls and texts became the things of nightmares, with parents helplessly listening to screams of fear from their children as the waters rose.  

Civilian SCUBA and commercial divers and arrived from all over Korea to assist in the rescue, and later, to assist in the recovery of the victims.  The scene was chaotic on the surface.  Water conditions were treacherous.  There were divers who lost their lives, but that did not stop the rest who continued to search the ship.  They risked their lives to bring the bodies of children home to their parents.  I remember watching a restaurant owner burst into tears as the television described divers finding children who had tied themselves together for fear of being separated.  At that moment, I almost burst into tears as well.  

Artwork honouring Park Ji Young, by Martyn Thompson

As with many horror stories, there were heroes who rose to the surface.  There were crew members, especially younger crew members, who did their best to help as many as they could.  Some lost their lives for it.  One of those was Park Ji Young, a young woman in her early 20s.  She saved many students, encouraging them to put on life jackets and head out to the deck of the ship.  She gave up her own life jacket to one of the students who had none, then went inside to get others.  She did not make it. 

I am not Korean, but I shared in the grief of a nation during that time. I had some strong emotions about that incident for a few reasons.  With a love and healthy respect for and the water, the horror of the tragedy was very real for me.  As a skipper, the thought of what the captain did makes me angry (to this day).  I had worked with so many high school and university students who could easily have been the students on that boat, and the young heroes who lost their lives.  

Why did all those young people die?  It was not their swimming ability.  It was not a lack of life jackets.  It was not the cold water.  It was a failure of a system.  It was a failure of leadership. It was a choice of money and status over the protection of human life.  

Each year I take time to reflect on the tragedy of Sewol, and during the year I keep that yellow ribbon pin close so that I am reminded of those reflections.  It helps me to remember to keep the moral and ethical foundations of Enigmatic and Global Swim projects strong.  It helps me to remember the importance of leadership, with both the responsibility it carries as well as the need to develop strong leaders for the future.   

For more about the Sewol story, use the following link to see the video: What went wrong in the South Korean ferry disaster?: The New Yorker

Remember the Sewol