Investigations fail to explain sinking
Despite numerous investigations spanning years, the cause of the Sewol ferry sinking has never been determined. Questions about the government’s role triggered a national conversation about corruption and accountability, while many mainstream media outlets, both inside and outside of Korea, reported inaccurate information.
The sinking of a ship is a complicated matter, and one that has fascinated readers since the beginning of journalism. There is never a single cause. Countless miscalculations, erroneous assumptions, and coincidences of timing and fate combine to create a one-in-a-million catastrophe.
A combination of issues also contributed to the sinking of the 6,825-ton Sewol. Because the exact cause of the accident has not been determined, numerous unresolved questions linger, including:
- Why did the ship take a sudden sharp turn to starboard just before it took on a fatal list?
- What was the Sewol’s actual path and speed at the time of the turn?
- Was there a miscommunication or a misunderstanding between the third mate and the helmsman at the time of the accident?
- What actions, if any, did the crew take to correct the list and help passengers?
- Why did the Coast Guard stop civilian volunteers from assisting with the rescue?
- Why did the Korean Coast Guard refuse help from other vessels in the area, like the USS Bonhomme Richard?
- Why did the Korean Coast Guard afterwards say that it was not equipped to rescue people from sinking ships?
The Sewol was making a night-time run to the resort island of Jeju when it made a sudden sharp turn to starboard early in the morning of April 16, 2014 and took on a list to port. Dashboard cameras from vehicles aboard the ferry show a jolt as the list began. As the list increased, cargo and vehicles began to slide down the tilting decks, dooming the aging vessel. Members of the crew counseled passengers via the intercom system to stay where they were. The Coast Guard ships that initially arrived failed to mount a rescue operation, and this resulted in the deaths of hundreds of passengers who might have survived. The captain and senior crew members saved themselves while high school students below deck posted videos of themselves in their tilting cabins before being consumed by the sea.
The tragedy led to outrage spanning the length and breadth of South Korea and a period of deep national self-examination that continues today. Corruption in the government and the private sector were also a focus of seething national anger. Eventually, the Coast Guard was radically reorganized, and President Park’s administration fell, partially because of its flawed response to both the tragedy and the grief that followed it.
The first official report by prosecutors and marine police regarding the causes of the sinking was an interim report released in July 2014. Yonhap News Agency, cited by the British Broadcasting Company, said officials believed the ferry sank due to “negligence and corruption.” The more complete report was released in October 2014 and endorsed by the Korean Maritime Tribunal in December 2014.
Listing the causes of the sinking, it stated:
[U]nseaworthiness as a result of modifications to the ferry; overloading of cargo; and drainage of required ballast water were identified as the causes of the sinking. The vessel, built and commissioned in Japan in 1994, was purchased by Chunghaejin Marine Co. in 2012. Before the Sewol ferry was placed in service in Korea, the ferry’s upper decks were renovated, adding scores of cabins capable of carrying an additional 114 passengers and an art gallery.
A steering error, the report continued, caused these unsafe conditions to become deadly. This became the lasting, entrenched narrative embraced by many news outlets outside South Korea.
In April 2015, the Gwangju High Court suggested the Sewol may have sunk due to engine failure rather than a steering error. According to Hankyoreh, the court also indicated that the vessel would need to be salvaged to determine the exact cause of the accident.
A special committee was launched in March 2015. However, this committee was disbanded on September 30, 2016, without reporting any findings. At the time, the wreck of the Sewol was still on the seabed.
It was only after the ship was raised in 2017, soon after President Park was impeached, that a more in-depth investigation could be attempted. An eight-member panel was appointed by the new administration of President Moon Jae-in to re-open the case. The mission of the panel was multifold: to scrutinize the cause of the accident itself as well as the failed responses to the tragedy. This effort became known as the “Hull Investigation.”
In August 2019, this 13-month investigation concluded that the cause of the accident could not be determined.
Yonhap News Agency reported that some members of the panel concluded that the sinking could have been due to problems with the ship — such as the sudden turn, excessive cargo load, or stability or buoyancy issues created by substandard refurbishing. Other members of the panel said that external factors, such as collision with a submarine or other unknown objects, could not be ruled out. The fact that the water was calm suggested to some members of the panel that it was simply impossible for the ship to list abruptly and capsize on its own.
Yonhap News Agency and all major Korean news outlets gave considerable coverage to the findings of the Hull Investigation, or lack thereof. Yonhap’s story in August 2019 – headlined “Year-long investigation into Sewol Ferry Fizzles out” — began this way:
SEOUL, Aug. 6 (Yonhap) — A state panel assigned to investigate the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster failed to pinpoint the exact cause of the ship’s sinking after a yearlong effort, it was announced Monday, leaving many unanswered questions behind one of South Korea’s worst maritime tragedies.
The panel concluded that the cause of the Sewol sinking could have been either problems with the ship or an unknown external shock. This was an important reversal from the Korean Maritime Tribunal’s report, but it received virtually no coverage in major international news outlets.
Other developments have shed light on possible causes. Hankyoreh reported in June, 2016 that the Sewol had been carrying 278 tons of iron bars meant for the Jeju military base, and that the ferry’s sailing schedule may have been adjusted due to its government work.
On Nov. 24, 2017, Sisa Journal quoted Daehan Ship Design as noting that the long-established maximum load of the Sewol, 987 tons, was in fact inaccurate. Based on the fact that the “full load line” on the hull was not being used to calculate the weight, but rather the “full water line” was, the company concluded on October 25, 2017 that the Sewol actually had a maximum capacity of 2,272 tons of cargo. This meant the ship was not overloaded on that fateful morning, casting doubt on one of the previously accepted causes.
Following the issuance of the Hull Investigation report, another government investigation was launched. This investigation was led by the Sewol Committee Special Prosecution Task Force – and announced its conclusion in January 2021. Again, the task force did not determine the cause of the sinking. Instead, much of its work was focused on the government’s mishandling of the disaster, which could be a political football well into the future.
Meanwhile, back in December 2017, yet another investigative panel, the “Special Investigation Commission on Humidified Disinfectants and the 4-16 Sewol Ferry Disaster” (also known as the “Social Disasters Commission”) had been formed by order of the Moon Jae-in administration. Its role was to investigate the Sewol sinking and a previous, heavily reported tragedy: the deaths of 100 people due to a dangerous disinfectant used to clean humidifiers.
The Social Disasters Commission released its final report in September, 2022. Its main focus was not the cause of the accident, though it again stated that a collision with an outside force could not be ruled out, even if that possibility seemed unlikely. Instead, the Commission was highly critical of the government’s investigative techniques, its use of public entities for political means, and suggested that the government had committed “state crimes” against the families of the Sewol victims.
The lack of a definitively identified cause of the sinking and the government’s refusal to disclose everything it knows about the tragedy – coupled with the extreme national trauma caused by the loss of so many children – has opened the floodgates to various theories. The most prominent of these was presented in the documentary film Intention, released in 2018 and directed by Kim Ji-young, and its follow-up, Ghost Ship, which premiered in 2020. Both were box office hits in South Korea.
Intention focuses on lapses in Sewol’s AIS positioning transmissions and conflicting records of those transmissions. The documentary notes that when the fateful turn occurred, the ship was actually 10 miles to the east of where it was supposed to have been, near a small island. By transposing the ship’s location and exact path, the filmmakers theorized that the Sewol had been riding on the edge of an underwater mountain range, perhaps deliberately. An anchor from the ship may have been dragged and then caught on the rocky environment below, resulting in the Sewol’s unusually sharp turn.
In the end, the filmmakers behind Intention do not posit a theory as to why such events would have been covered up by the government.
The various investigative bodies that examined the Sewol tragedy responded to the filmmakers’ theory in different ways. The Social Disasters Commission found some merit in the theory. As recently as April 2021, during an interview to mark the anniversary of the sinking, Park Byung-woo, the director of the commission, discussed the curious nature of Sewol’s missing signal data. He noted that by triangulating the various AIS signals obtained from different sources, the Sewol actually was roughly 6 km away from the spot the government said the capsizing had occurred.
Whatever the merits of these various revelations and discoveries, it is clear that no one truly understands what caused the sinking of the Sewol ferry.
The sinking of the Sewol understandably was an object of considerable interest to maritime professionals around the world. Thousands of ships have sailed with too much cargo and too little ballast without incident, so many experts naturally questioned the early, accepted cause of the sinking.
Several maritime publications wrote about the findings of the Hull Investigation. For example, gCaptain, a highly respected site that aggregates maritime news from around the world, wrote:
The cause of one the worst maritime disasters in South Korea’s history is likely to remain a mystery.
This week, an eight-member panel appointed by the South Korean government to investigate the 2014 capsizing and sinking of the Sewol ferry released its findings from the investigation, failing to pinpoint an exact cause.
Instead, the panel concluded that the sinking could have been due to problems with the ship, such as a sudden turn, excessive cargo load, or stability or buoyancy issues created by substandard refurbishing, or external factors, such as collision with a submarine or other unknown objects.
The Maritime Executive also elaborated on the sinking with a story headlined “Sewol: External Shock Not Ruled Out.” Safety4Sea and MarineLog provided similar coverage.
The initial coverage of the Sewol disaster linked the sinking to negligence and corruption. However, despite several investigations, the cause of the disaster remains unknown.