Concordia Part 2? South Korea Ferry Captain Faces Scrutiny After Abandoning Sinking Ship

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

South Korea Ferry AccidentTragedy stuck on Wednesday morning, when a passenger ferry transporting nearly 500 people capsized in frigid waters off the coast of the South Korean peninsula. Our maritime lawyers brought you the story yesterday, but have since learned of some new, disturbing evidence regarding both the rescue mission and the captain’s actions.

According to authorities, the death count is now up to 16 as of Thursday night, and no additional survivors have been located, despite the fact that over 500 divers have been scouring the area for two days. Unfortunately, unfavorable weather conditions have interfered with the ongoing search, reducing diver visibility and placing the lives of rescuers in danger.

As hope to find additional survivors continues to diminish, three large cranes have now been sent out to the accident site to raise the ferry, as several passengers are believed to have been trapped in the wreckage. Divers are also planning to pump oxygen into the sunken ship to aid any victims who may still be struggling for life inside the vessel.

As it stands, nearly 300 passengers remain unaccounted for – many of which are teenagers. The ferry had been en route to the resort island of Jeju on a class trip, when the ferry, a five-story ship named the Sewol, apparently crashed into a yet unidentifiable object and listed severely to one side. Passengers were told to remain calm and seated, but the environment onboard was anything BUT tranquil.

Footage obtained from rescued survivors shows hundreds of people with lifejackets on, trying to follow crew member orders, all the while the ship was  rapidly sinking. Many chose to jump ship, while others frantically searched the ship for any sign of help or good news from the crew.

Very little information has been revealed regarding the actual cause of the accident, but from the looks of it, the accident shares an eerie resemblance to the Costa Concordia capsizing accident. Both accidents appear to have resulted from negligence, and with new, appalling information regarding the Sewol’s captain, it seems our fears are coming to fruition.

All fingers are now pointing at the ferry’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, for his role in the horrific capsizing accident. A crew member has come forward to reveal that not only did the captain fail to give evacuation orders to passengers when the vessel began to list, but he was among the first to abandon the sinking ship!

According to the crew member, Lee instructed passengers to put on their lifejackets and just stay put. It wasn’t until 30 minutes later that he gave orders to abandon ship, when it was obviously too late.

The captain, whose reputation is largely beginning to mimic that of the Concordia’s captain, Francesco Schettino, appeared before reporters yesterday wearing a hooded sweatshirt to conceal his guilt and shame. Lee said he was “deeply ashamed” for what had transpired.

Much like Schettino, who reportedly made an unauthorized call to change the course of the Concordia and ultimately caused it to strike a giant rock, it appears as though the ferry did not follow the path recommended by the Maritime Affairs Ministry. According to the coast guard, the ferry also made a sharp turn when it was supposed to turn gradually. Furthermore – the ferry was loaded with cargo containers.  All these factors may have contributed to the accident.

Maritime authorities have yet to determine what exactly the vessel struck, if anything, but many  believe it was a large rock. Negligence appears to abound with this cruise ship accident, but we can only hope that survivors and the loved ones of those who’ve perished obtain swift justice.

This horrible accident just goes to show that no one is ever really safe on the high seas. As experienced maritime lawyers, we highly advise anyone who is considering a cruise vacation to always have their lifejackets at hand and to pack emergency rations, including a first aid kit, water and other non-perishable items in the event that tragedy strikes. It’s important that accident victims understand they have a right to contact an attorney for assistance following a cruise accident, especially if any injuries or deaths ensued.