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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

South Korean ferry disaster hits home for Brandeis community

Published: April 25, 2014
Section: News, Top Stories

On Wednesday, April 16, a 460-foot-long, five-story ferry in South Korea sunk, leaving more than 280 people, mostly students, missing. At 60 percent capacity, there were more than 460 people on board, and 325 of the passengers were students from Danwon High School in Ansan, a town about 20 miles south of Seoul. These were second-year high school students who were on a school trip before cramming for college entrance exams. As of Sunday, April 20, the death toll stood at 58. The ship also carried a full cargo load with 124 cars, 56 trucks and 105 shipping containers.

“It is the most tragic and heart-breaking disaster that has ever occurred in Korea, and the rescue process is not going well,” said Min-Sung (Chris) Hong ’15, social chair of the Brandeis Korean Student Association (BKSA).

As a result of the disaster, BKSA is holding a candlelight ceremony on Tuesday, April 29 at 9 p.m. in front of the Shapiro Campus Center. The students want to show video footage of what happened and why it happened to inform the Brandeis community. BKSA also wants to film this ceremony and send it to the students at Danwon High School to show support.

“We want to show them that even students in America are supporting them and that the whole world will never forget about their tragic deaths,” said Hong.

Hong, along with many other Korean students, have been deeply affected by this tragedy, as some of the members in BKSA come from towns near the area of where the high school is located.

“Our members aren’t directly related to the victims of this incident. But we are all South Koreans, and we are all families with same cultural background. We all feel directly attached to the victims’ families, and it was hard to spend our break going through this,” said Hong.

Hong hopes the Brandeis community can take part in supporting BKSA as well as the victims from the ferry disaster, first by becoming informed, and second by participating in the candlelight ceremony.

The ship was led by Captain Lee Jun-Seok, 69, who placed his own life above his passengers, fleeing the sinking vessel, but has yet to publicly state why he abandoned the ship with the passengers still on board. The New York Times calls it an “apparent violation of maritime protocol, if not the law.” In many countries, the law does not explicitly state that the captain must be the last person to leave a distressed ship, but experts say South Korea’s law appears to be explicit, allowing authorities to later arrest Lee. According to prosecutors, he was charged with abandoning the boat and its passengers at a time of crisis. Lee, as well as a 26-year-old woman who was the third mate and another crew member were all cuffed after a judge approved arrest warrants and taken to jail shortly thereafter.

In 1914, after the Titanic disaster, an international maritime treaty was first adopted known as Safety of Life at Sea, making a ship’s captain responsible for the lives of everyone on board and for the vessel’s safety.

Maritime experts say the abandonment was shocking and that it violated “a proud international (and South Korean) tradition of stewardship based at least as much on accepted codes of behavior as by law.”

“That guy’s an embarrassment to anybody who’s ever had command at sea,” said John B. Padgett III, a retired United States Navy rear admiral and former submarine captain, according to The New York Times on April 19.

The ship, named the Sewol, began its overnight journey on Tuesday evening at 9 p.m., leaving from a pier in Incheon, west of Seoul, heading toward the southern island of Jeju. This ferry plied this 264-mile route twice each week, down the west coast of South Korea.

The Sewol took two and a half hours to sink, but many of the survivors from the ferry disaster say the crew advised passengers to stay inside the ship, likely dooming them, according to The New York Times. The captain stated he later instructed the passengers on board to evacuate the ship, although it is unclear if this information was conveyed to all passengers.

“Our hope is that the Brandeis community will know what has happened in general, and that so many families in Korea are suffering from losses,” Hong said. “We would appreciate if the Brandeis community can all take part in the candlelight ceremony to show our respect to the victims’ families. Those people lost something that cannot be replaced with money or any kind of wealth, and it truly was one of the biggest tragic accidents that has happened in 2014.”