The Sewol Ferry Disaster, 10 Years Later

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The Sewol Ferry Disaster, 10 Years Later

Despite two changes in the South Korean presidency, bereaved families say their questions remain unanswered.

The Sewol Ferry Disaster, 10 Years Later

A protester prays standing by life vests symbolizing the 304 victims of the sunken ferry Sewol in 2014 during a candle light vigil calling for impeached President Park Geun-hye to step down in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 7, 2017.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

On the evening of April 15, 2014, the Sewol ferry set sail from Incheon, South Korea. There were 476 people on board: 33 crew members and 443 passengers. Of the passengers, more than half were high school sophomores on a school trip to Jeju Island.

The passengers were informed by crews that it would take roughly 13 hours to reach Jeju. The students may have felt uneasy about spending such a long time on the ferry. Some were worried about getting seasick. However, overall excitement and joy surrounded the trip. The students expected to spend an unforgettable time with their classmates and teachers in Jeju, the most beautiful island in South Korea.

Students took pictures and recorded videos to capture the moment. Many had a sense that this was a precious time that would never come back again. Such a big school trip was a rare opportunity. And in the coming years, they would not be able to spend as much time with their friends and teachers because of the intense preparations for college admissions. Every single moment on the ferry was invaluable for them. 

Some decided to stay up all night chatting, even though the teachers told them not to. Some shared secrets and made their friends swear not to tell anyone else. 

While bonding with each other, some of the teenagers began to sense that there were some issues on the ferry. 

Around 8:52 a.m. KST on April 16 – the morning after the ship had departed from Incheon – one of the students called 119, the emergency number in South Korea, to report that the ferry was listing toward the left side. 

Chaos and anxiety was erupting on the ferry, as it became apparent that the boat was sinking. However, the crew made an announcement asking the passengers to stay in their cabins. This fatal announcement was repeated multiple times, as the passengers – including the students – were unsure whether to follow the instructions. Time was ticking, and the ship was sinking deeper. 

The passengers believed a rescue team was on its way. According to the media’s live coverage, however, the Korea Coast Guard did not try to enter the sinking ferry for more than an hour. The Coast Guard was waiting for the passengers to escape the ferry first, so that it could rescue them from the water. 

Apparently, no one knew that the crew had informed the students to stay onboard and wait for a rescue that wasn’t coming.