Did Human Error Sink the South Korean Ferry?

Maritime safety consultant James Staples questions the actions of the crew in South Korea's deadly ferry disaster.

By MarEx 2014-04-17 12:56:00

Staples is a 35-year veteran deep ocean master ship captain who teaches an array of courses at the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots’ Maritime Institute of Technology in suburban Baltimore. He is president of Boston’s OceanRivers, LLC, maritime consulting.

While the cause of the deadly sinking of a South Korean passenger ferry remains undetermined, reports that the captain announced to passengers, “don’t move,” as the ship was sinking, is puzzling and in contradiction of all international procedures, according to Captain Jim Staples, one of the world’s foremost maritime emergency response, nautical navigation and ship safety experts.

“The captain was supposed to calmly instruct passengers to put on life vests and move toward the life rafts, where the crew would have instructed them on an orderly escape,” says Staples. “This is eerily similar to the mistakes made by the captains and crew of the Titanic and Costa Concordia, which delayed sounding the alarm to abandon ship.”

The captain and crew of the ferry disaster survived the sinking, while hundreds of passengers, mostly teenagers on a class trip drowned. “The captain goes down with the ship" is the maritime tradition that a sea captain holds ultimate responsibility for both his ship and everyone embarked on it, and he will die trying to save either of them,” explains Staples. “’Women and children first’ (is a historical code of conduct whereby the lives of women and children are saved first in a life-threatening, when survival resources such as lifeboats are limited.”

Staples emphasizes, “The ferry incident underscores the need for more maritime training and safety and maintenance regulations, worldwide.” He adds. “Initial reports indicate that none of the ferry’s life rafts were deployed and that emergency-release windows could not be opened.The issue of lifeboats is hauntingly similar to what happened on Titanic and Concordia, as well.”


“The South Korean ferry incident came one day after the 102nd observance of the Titanic disaster and in the wake of a series of recent passenger ship marine mishaps.” Staples continues, “We keep seeing the same serious problems repeated on passenger ships and little is being done to prevent them from happening again – opposed to the global outrage following the Titanic disaster, which resulted in multi-national maritime mandates regarding safety inspections, adequate lifeboats for all people aboard ships, life boat drills, 24 hour radio operations, emergency response procedures, ship design requirements and iceberg patrols.”


Staples recites, “In April, there have been three norovirus outbreaks, sickening hundreds of passengers on three separate cruise ships, possibly linked to contaminated food, water and preparation and bathroom surfaces; since February there have been two highly-publicized sexual assaults; during the past 24 months there have been a multitude of ship-disabling electrical outages, engine room fires and propulsion, steering and sanitary system breakdowns; and in January 2012, the fatal sinking of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground. And, now, the South Korean ferry.”

Staples explains, “Increasing speed is the reason why Titanic collided with an iceberg. The captain and White Star Lines’ executives, seeking to make news headline by arriving in New York ahead of schedule, pushed the engines shrinking the time that lookouts had to spot icebergs in the North Atlantic.”

According to early news reports, the South Korean ferry may have been trying to compensate for lost time following a two-hour departure delay due to fog. Those same reports stated the ship may have been speeding and/or veering off course –making a short cut.


Staples points-out, “Most long voyage ferry boats worldwide typically conduct life boat drills; short hauls usually include safety announcements, but, in many cases, vehicles are not chained to the deck – making them moving objects in the event of a disaster.”


Staples, who teaches navigation courses on MM&P’s technologically-advanced command bridge simulator, says training is key to prevention. “American merchant mariners, who are all licensed, documented and vetted by the United States Coast Guard, are taught that adhering to schedules is secondary to staying on course and prioritizing safety.” He adds, “They are also trained on how to properly abandon ship, with emphasis on instructing passengers and saving lives.”


“These recent marine mishaps warrant concerns about the need for additional international and domestic U.S. regulations,” says Staples. “For example, American-owned cruise line companies, which register their ships in foreign nations, are enjoying exemptions from  federal and state food handling and transport guidelines, U.S. labor laws, federal corporate income tax payments, U.S. Coast Guard employee licensing regulations and Federal Bureau of Investigation employee screenings.”.

Most cruise ship employees are certified by the countries where the ships are registered, including the African Republics of Liberia and Sierra Leone, Bahamas and Panama. Many officers are certified by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization but not the USCG.

“MM&P officer-members and other U.S. unionized mariners are shut-out of the cruise ship industry,” says Captain Staples. “Americans seek commensurate wages and benefits and reasonable work shifts. Whereas foreigners, especially, crew members and servants from undeveloped nations, are willing to accept less – and are treated, in many respects, like indentured servants aboard cruise ships where they live in cramped quarters and go months at a time without shore leave.”

Staples emphasizes “That while the South Korean ferry incident is a non-US issue; it is of interest in America, where we are experiencing passenger ship incidents, which continue occurring. In the U.S., are we eventually going to hear from the news media, ‘it could have been avoided…if….?”