It's been reported that a "sharp turn made by an inexperienced sailor was the fundamental cause of the deadly capsizing of the Sewol ferry," though other theories exist (and are listed on the Wikipedia page). As well, even though the Captain should have been present on the bridge, he wasn't. As the Joongang Ilbo also notes,
The captain was also charged with fleeing the ferry and abandoning passengers, a violation of the Act on the Aggravated Punishment of Special Crimes, and negligence resulting in the death of passengers, a violation of the Criminal Act. If the captain is ruled guilty of all of those three charges, he could receive a life sentence.The fact that the Captain and much of the crew - the able-bodied sailors at any rate - escaped from the ship and were among the first rescued has brought a storm of criticism down upon them. There is also criticism of the indecision which took place when the first distress calls were made (a transcript is here) as well as the other safety measures which failed:
The Sewol was equipped with 46 lifeboats that could each hold between 10 to 15 people. The lifeboats should inflate automatically once their pins are released. But only one of them functioned.This has led to a great deal of criticism and bitterness, with the Tokyo bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo penning an editorial comparing Korea's emergency preparedness unfavourably with Japan's and writing things like "In Korea, you die if you follow orders and save yourself if you don't" and "Let’s give up the title of "developed country" for now." As for blame, the current administration getting lambasted in some quarters, while elsewhere criticism falls upon the "opaque, undutiful and craven corporate" sector.
At the same time, stories of selflessness have been brought to light as well, including a crewmember and two teachers who died trying to save others.
Unsurprisingly, there have been many mentions in the (Korean) media about past accidents that resulted in great loss of life. A news search on naver (yesterday) turned up the following results for the following search terms:
489 results for 세월호 삼풍백화점, or the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store on June 29, 1995, which killed 501 people.
447 results for 세월호 대구지하철, or the Daegu Metro fire on February 18, 2003, which killed 198 people. [Photo.]
291 results for 세월호 성수대교, the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge on October 21, 1994, which killed 32 people, including students on their way to school. [I looked at it and the incident below here.]
40 results for 세월호 대구 지하철 가스폭발, the Daegu gas explosion, which took place during construction of the subway system, on April 28, 1995 killed 101 people, the majority of them students. [Photo.]
[Out of interest, another disaster from that time period I came across was the Ahyeon gas explosion, which took place next to what is now Aeogae Station on December 7, 1994, and which killed 12 people.]
It's not surprising that collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995 and the Daegu Subway fire are the most referenced, as they both resulted in a catastrophically high number of deaths and were both either immediately due to or greatly exacerbated by incompetence and negligence. These characteristics are also found found in the other tragedies, but the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge resulted in fewer deaths, while the Daegu gas explosion wasn't, I suppose, exacerbated by negligence, just caused by it. With so many students killed, however, I can't help but wonder if the reason it hasn't been referenced so much is because it took place in Daegu, and not Seoul, though the references to the subway fire there would seem to suggest that that isn't the case.
In addition to these more well-known disasters, two others have been referenced as well, for obvious reasons:
[Photo from here.]
241 results for 세월호 서해 페리호, the October 10, 1993 sinking of the "passenger liner Seohae Ferry... off the southwestern coast of North Jeolla Province, killing 292" out of 362 passengers. The ferry was carrying 141 more passengers than the 221 it was meant to carry. Initial reports also stated that there were far less casualties than there actually were.
[Photo from here.]
160 results for 세월호 남영호, the December 15, 1970 sinking of the passenger liner Namyoung, sailing from Jeju to Busan, off the coast of Yeosu, killing 323 people out of 338 on board. According to this article, it was meant to carry 130 tons, but was actually loaded with 230 tons of cargo.
[Some information is from this Yonhap list of shipping accidents.]
Again, it's interesting that these ferry disasters aren't well remembered; I suppose they tend to involve people not from the capital region, and took place before the internet age and explosion of media, which allows for much more 'access' to the event. (To be sure, there were many, many train and bus accidents, as well as hotel fires and building collapses back in the 1970s in particular, which are not well remembered today, even though they took place in Seoul.)
Something that weighs more on my mind is the effect so many deaths will have on the residents of Ansan, which is relatively small with a population of 76,000, as well as Danwon High School in particular. According to this article, 325 11th grade students went on the trip, and 13 stayed behind. As only 75 students have been rescued - and there's little hope at this point more will be - that leaves only 88 out of 338 students from that grade left in the school.
Last week the first funerals were held, marking the beginning of what will be hundreds of funeral processions. As well, only 3 out of 14 teachers were rescued, and one of them, the vice-principal, later committed suicide. To have 250 students and 12 teachers suddenly absent from a single grade is a loss that is almost unimaginable.
What happens when there are more empty desks with flowers on them than students, and not just in one classroom, but in ten or more?