Ten Years Later, Survivors and Families Remember the Sewol Tragedy

Korea Coast Guard boat teams rush to rescue passengers from the capsized ferry Sewol,

Published Apr 16, 2024 6:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Tuesday, relatives of the lost passengers of the ferry Sewol gathered at the city of Ansan to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the vessel's disastrous sinking, which claimed the lives of more than 260 children and 40 adults in 2014. 

On April 16, 2014, the ferry Sewol was under way to the southern resort island of Jeju, off the peninsula's southwestern tip. Most of the passengers were high school students and their teachers on a school field trip. The vessel suddenly capsized during a turn, and more than 300 people were trapped inside the ferry and drowned. Survivors later testified that the crew had told them to stay in their cabins to wait for a rescue - and that the master and crew then departed in lifeboats. Only 172 people abandoned ship on their own initiative and survived. 

In the aftermath, the Korean government hired Shanghai Salvage to conduct the deepest refloat ever attempted. The entirety of the ferry was recovered and transported to shore in one piece, partly for investigative purposes and partly to attempt to recover all human remains. 

The ensuing investigation became mired in political controversy. Families of the victims alleged that then-South Korean president Park Geun-hye's government attempted to interfere with the inquiry by withholding documents and delaying the salvage project, and the scandal played a role in Park's impeachment and removal from office. Her successor, President Moon Jae-in, opened a second independent inquiry at the families' request. 

The investigation found that the ship's top deck level had been augmented with a new compartment, increasing mass high above the waterline. After these modifications, class reduced Sewol's deadweight to about 990 tonnes - but she was carrying 2,140 tonnes of cargo on the day of the casualty, not all of it properly secured. Prosecutors also found that the operator had spent a total of two dollars on safety training for the crew in the prior year, and the sole expenditure was for a paper certificate. 

The captain of the Sewol was sentenced to 36 years in prison for "murder through willful negligence." Other crewmembers received terms of up to 30 years, and the shipowner was sentenced to 10 years. Criminal trials related to the sinking continued up through 2023.

After ten years and two formal investigations, families of the lost students are still pressing for more answers and accountability. "Our demand is very simple. Accept responsibility, apologize and promise disasters like this won't ever happen again," advocacy group leader Park Seung-ryul told Reuters.  

“We need to do serious soul-searching about why we could not find the truth and whether the current system, which failed to punish those responsible in a way acceptable to the people, is truly righteous," said Song Doo-hwan, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, in a statement Tuesday. 

Families and friends of the victims marked the 10-year anniversary of the sinking at locations around Korea this week, and several dozen boarded a Korea Coast Guard vessel to visit the wreck site, which is permanently marked with a buoy. At the main commemorative ceremony in Ansan, two top ministers and members of most of Korea's political parties were present; President Yoon Suk Yeol could not join, but offered remarks on the occasion from Seoul.