cigarette pack Blind Obedience. Misplaced Trust.
Lessons from MV Sewol.
cigarette pack

I recall watching in disbelief, then horror as the Korean ferry - MV Sewol - very slowly turned turtle (1). Arirang and KBS television both ran live feeds from a helicopter and my reaction was very similar to watching the World Trade Center disaster of 2001. It was remote and impersonal, until I saw people from the floors above the fire chose to end their lives by jumping. Then reality struck - big time - those people had a choice of death by fire, or death by jumping. It must have been terrifying; a massive passenger aircraft slamming into the building, the noise, the tower rocking, the flames outside the windows, the dust, the chaos, the screaming and finally the dawning that the fire escapes were infernos or had simply evaporated. And the flames didn't stop, thousands of litres of aviation fuel made sure that everything that could burn did - at a fearsome rate - and it was going upwards. It's a hellish decision to make; some chose to make it quick and jumped, while those who didn't died when the tower collapsed.

Same thing with MV Sewol. As the press helicopter honed in on the port side, I could see that passengers, half submerged in water, had to scramble over a railing that was now above their heads, then clamber over that to slide down the side of the ferry. What looked to be a great big smooth metal hull from afar was nothing of the sort; it was rusty, laced with rivets and flaking paint. Passengers could see it would shred clothing and seriously lacerate skin. Survive that and you were into cold water - 12 degrees Centigrade on the 16th April. That would give a healthy individual about 90 minutes before hypothermia set in, far less for the aged and infirm, even if they could manage to clamber over that railing. For them there was no choice but to wait for the helicopters to winch them out of danger. Unfortunately they could only winch one at a time in a process that lasted several minutes, then had severely limited carrying capacity before they had to head to shore to drop off their passengers. In all the helicopters were useful for less than 60 minutes.

Local boat owners were first on the scene and many risked their vessels and their lives to get to those passengers. What made them take such insane risks was the fact that many passengers couldn't swim and some had no life jackets. Their reluctance to move endangered the lives of others who simply couldn't get past the blockage caused by so many terrorized people. Several boat owners, fishermen I believe, displayed levels of courage and skill that was jaw dropping, especially as at any time the ferry could have turned their glass fiber boats into flotsam. They risked their all for complete strangers with no expectation of reward. Quite astonishing.

It seems the Korean Coast Guard first learned that the ferry was in serious difficulties when Choi Deok-ha, a 17 year old student, managed to get a mobile signal long enough to call the Emergency Service at 08.52 hrs and tell them "the boat is sinking". That was 8 minutes before the crew issued an official distress signal, however it was Choi's initiative that led to the first rescue ship being dispatched at 08.58, though it took the better part of 30 minutes for them to reach the ferry. Tragically Choi was not one of the survivors.

It's taken seven months to get to the bottom of what is a tale of greed, incompetence, negligence and lies. Several individuals have committed suicide, the first being the 52 year old Vice Principal - Kang Min-kyu - who had organized the school trip and was accompanying the 300 students. He replied to one call from a student, telling her to do as instructed by the Captain - remain calm and in your cabin. He was rescued by helicopter but elected to end his life two days later, by hanging himself using his belt and a tree in the grounds of his school. The severely decomposed body of Yoo Byung-eun, the 73 year old billionaire owner of Chonghaejin Marine, which operated the Sewol, was discovered a few months later in a plum field some 300 kilometers south of Seoul. It's assumed he too committed suicide, however few give a toss.

A small number of crew members did the right thing and remained to help passengers to safety. Park Ji-young was all of 22 years of age and a part time employee of the shipping company. She had the common sense to ignore the Captain's orders and - to the astonishment many - shouted to passengers to abandon ship. She's reported to have given her life jacket to a teenager and after the better part of an hour of pushing terrified passengers in the right direction, submerging herself several times to physically haul people back to the surface (the vessel was at an acute angle, so passengers were shuffling along what was a corridor wall with open doors along the way), she finally succumbed to the cold and exhaustion and perished. Her initiative and subsequent actions undoubtedly saved the lives of many.

Kim Gi-woong, also a part time employee, together with his girlfriend Jeong Hyeon-seon who worked in the cafeteria, both aged 28, chose to remain with the vessel. Survivors spoke of their incredible efforts to help people to safety and - despite having an opportunity to leave the vessel - chose to return to the cabin area to help more passengers. That was their last sighting alive.

It's known that all three came from poor or modest backgrounds and, following a national petition, they have been awarded the status of "Deceased Noble Persons" that not only allows their bodies to be interred in the National Cemetery, but also awards their next of kin financial compensation in the region of £125,000.

Yang Dae-hong was the Chief Officer of the vessel. He must have sensed what his outcome might be because he used the ship's phone to tell his wife to use what money he'd saved to get their eldest child through college, then said he had to go and "rescue the kids". He's known to have helped many escape the vessel and was last seen alive returning to the ferry in an effort to help more. He was 45 years old.

And Nam Yun-cheol, a 36-year-old teacher at Danwon High School, died while trying to rescue his students. As the ship started sinking, Nam went downstairs to the cabins to fetch them. The last sighting of him was when he was seen throwing life jackets toward his students.

Few of the remaining crew members hung around; some have received prison sentences that range from 5 to 30 years, as have those from Chonghaejin Marine. And the 69 year old Captain of the vessel - Lee Joon-seok - avoided a sentence of death by execution, which the prosecutors wanted. Instead he has been sentenced to 36 years in prison, so ensuring he'll never be a free man again in this life. He used the loudspeaker system to tell all the passengers to remain where they were for a variety of reasons, mainly to do with his hoping to right the ferry and to cover up his monumental errors of sailing with unsecured cargo that weighed almost four times more than the vessel's authorized limit, having insufficient ballast water - about 2,000 tons too little - to compensate for his overloading, and of leaving the steering to a 26 year old with next to no experience of that route and zero certification to captain a vessel.

The order to abandon ship was given some 30 minutes after the initial distress call, by which time the vessel was listing close to a 60 degree angle, meaning the two lower decks on the starboard side were fully submerged. Lee Joon-seok (the Captain) left the ferry as soon as he could and even passed himself off as a passenger for a short period of time.

One devastated father said of his dead son "he was an obedient child" - and my heart went out to that parent. Given the circumstances, where he was simply doing what he was told by his teacher and the Captain, it seems unbelievable that the kids - and many adults - didn't go with their gut.

If it feels wrong, then it is wrong.

And I'd say that when chairs, suitcases and other heavy objects start moving, then get the hell out of the place, by going in the opposite direction to the way everything's moving.

But they didn't, they seem to have trusted in authority figures, they seemed to go with the consensus and possibly peer pressure within their cabin. Yet from the text messages they sent some of them seemed to question this, even going so far as to ask their parents what to do. And in almost every case their parents told them to do as they were told by their teachers and the Captain.

And that's exactly what they did. Yet, also from their text messages, some kids realized that by doing so they were going to die. Those messages are the last contact many parents and friends will have - and that must be soul destroying.

300 out of 450 passengers perished that day and it's estimated that 250 of them were school children.

However I'd prefer to pick up on the lessons the 300 have given us because, like so many, I used to get on a train, plane, ferry and such always expecting a hassle free trip. I rarely bothered to note emergency exits, nor with that business of the stewardess telling us how to put on a life jacket, or oxygen masks. Not so now, in fact I even went as far as to try a life jacket on for size: slimy thing that'd be a swine to get on and strapped when seated - and I now know that a coat, bulky jacket or shoes will be a liability in water. On one flight I asked where the emergency life rafts were located, because in very cold water they're your only hope as help will take several hours to arrive at best. (That aircraft had rafts located in the ceiling adjacent to the front and rear doors - and the emergency slides are designed to detach to become stand-alone life rafts. Some airlines rely on slides alone).

Same with hotels now. Where's the emergency exit, is it clear of debris, and where are the fire extinguishers, or fire hose? It takes a couple of minutes in a hotel and you can always ask any member of staff. It's like insurance policies for the house and scooter, I hope to never have a need for them, but it helps me sleep at night knowing they're there!

I learned to swim at a very early age, it was the one thing "sporty" that I did very well at school. Used to enjoy hours at the public swimming baths in Alloa and Edinburgh. Last time I went to one the changing rooms were different; gone were the communal showers and dressing areas, it was all separate cubicles with two employees engaged in doing nothing more than keeping an eye open for cases of voyeurism.

Clearly something bad had happened for them to have gone to such lengths - and that's reflected in the rather chilling report that 50% of primary school children cannot swim one length of a swimming pool (2). I find that remarkable because so many people travel to warm sunny climes for their holidays, and disheartening because it's tremendous fun and a very useful skill to acquire. Maybe it's the Chlorine in the water, maybe it's the fact that swimming instructors have to touch their charges, maybe it's just something that's been over-hyped and, as one generation grows up without the skills, when they become parents they lack the ability to train their offspring and seem to have no wish to have others do so for them.

In an emergency, as we see from the Sewol, there will be fear, confusion, boneheads trying to video everything, as well as highly contagious blind panic. Having the knowledge of what options are available to you helps enormously and if you have the custody of others, that quiet authority is what'll get you through. Gestures such as passing your life jacket to another just changes the victim, from the fundamentally stupid to the sentimental twit. You can only help others when you yourself are in a position to do so and, in the case of a ferry, that means knowing where they keep the emergency life rafts, following the instructions written on the top (or reading up on them beforehand (3)), chucking the lot, hauling their lanyards to inflate them, then jumping.

They can criticize those in charge of the ferry at the time, but the Korean maritime body did stipulate it carry more than enough emergency life rafts for a full complement of passengers and crew. The fact that not a single one has been deployed must depress the relatives something awful. For sure the crew were at fault, however the life rafts were not chained into position, simply strapped with quick release latches and two healthy teenagers could have launched all 14 on the starboard side within 30 minutes. Those on the port side had the capacity to carry all the passengers and crew on board that day, while those on the starboard side could have offered safe refuge for more than 280 people.

MV Sewol unused emergency life rafts

Final minutes of MV Sewol showing 28 (port side) and 14 (starboard) unused emergency life rafts.

Many smokers will have noted they're close to a covered walkway that would be perfectly acceptable for a quick cigarette. That's one advantage of being a smoker, no one gives us a second glance if we meander around with a fag, pipe or cigar in hand - and that gives us an opportunity to check out our surroundings. And, from bitter experience, many of us have developed a deep and abiding skepticism that frequently borders on an outright loathing of experts, authority figures and office holders. It helps to question everything because, in this case, it was the Captain's wish to save his career that was the underlying reason for the delay in issuing a distress signal and in giving the order to abandon ship.

Fortunately many of us are all too aware of the interconnectivity between organizations, bureaucracy and politics that all too frequently leads to innocent people being placed at great risk. This is happening at this very moment within the EU where ferries will be required to change to low sulfur fuels on 1 January 2015 (4). It will result in more breakdowns or complete engine failures (when this was introduced in California in 2012, the number of failures doubled in the first year) and a disabled ferry in the English Channel is an accident waiting to happen, while a breakdown in the Baltic in winter guarantees freezing temperatures and the risk of becoming icebound. This is being forced through because of dangerously irresponsible politicians: the agreed measures do not have to come into effect until 2020.

Their explanation may sound remarkably familiar to any smoker with a knowledge of how they justified the smoking bans.

"Sulfur dioxide emissions result in acid rain and fine dust that causes respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

They are a direct health hazard in particular near major ports - like Dover.

The savings on healthcare and the environmental benefits will far exceed the costs of implementing the agreed International Maritime Organisation measures".

We know to be on the alert for false prophets and rank amateurs claiming expert status. Kids know about cheating in exams, but may not be aware of the consequences of doing so. People are in jobs that carry enormous responsibilities, but are academically and psychologically ill-equipped to hold that position because they lied and cheated to get their paper qualifications. The world is full of people like that.

In the case of a disaster like the Sewol it's pointless trying to reason or explain. Where time is critical all we can do is lead by example.

We won't be using our Smart Phones to jabber away with our chums using text, or using them to compile a video to post on-line. Those of us who have done our homework will be using them as an emergency beacon to alert our contacts and the authorities of our exact GPS position (5). There's a wealth of choice available, even one that allows the user to connect through the satellite system (a legitimate tax write-off for the self employed). Just one passenger with one such application would have confirmed Choi's telephone call and given them the exact position of the vessel, so helping to speed up the rescue effort.

However even those with the most basic mobile phone can do some things. Almost all mobile networks allow users to access the emergency services, even without a SIM card. Those with a SIM card who know the emergency numbers for whatever country they are in are at an advantage. These numbers are not consistent, however they are listed on Wiki (6). Alternatively if you have any signal then 000 should get you through to an operator, or 112 is gradually being accepted as a worldwide standard for emergency calls - and anyone anywhere in the EU or the US can get through using that number.

In cases where there is no visible mobile signal, it may still be possible to use the SMS service. Text messages can be sent on the weakest signal and it's recommended you try this if all else fails. Send a short text to anyone you trust giving them as much detail as you can and ask them to contact the emergency services for you. There have been many cases where this has worked, just keep on trying until you see "Message sent", but don't expect a reply.

And this should be in any mobile phone "ICE". That stands for In Case of Emergency (7) and the idea is you put that in your contacts list with the telephone number of someone who's close to you. It's helpful to enter "ICE - Wife" (or Son, Sister or such). In the case of a serious accident, having someone who knows your allergies, medication and blood type can make all the difference if you're unable to speak yourself. All emergency personnel know to scan your mobile to look for this. It's an excellent idea, has helped more than a few motorcyclist already, takes less than a minute to enter and is - in my opinion - a no-brainer.

So next time you're passing through an airport security check and happen to see a mobile phone that's been placed in a zip-lock plastic bag, there's a reason for that. It's not that the owner is being super careful of his/her phone, it's simply a cheap and very effective means to ensure it'll remain waterproof and - in a worst case scenario - it can be set to redial an emergency number and float. It doesn't matter if it's a basic ten quid item bought with a pay-as-you-go SIM card, or a fully funded state of the art corporate perk, all that matters is it'll send out a recognizable signal, something Search and Rescue check for.

Like it or not, no one lives forever and it saves a whole stack of hassle for relatives if you make a Will as soon as you have serious assets. It need not cost any money and avoids the absolute certainty that, should you die intestate, then it's left to the law to decide how to distribute your estate (8).

Yes it's nice to have an "obedient child", but so much better to have one who's trained to obey his/her instincts, has the confidence to act on them and the skills and knowledge to get the hell out of a lethal situation. They may be more of a handful in day to day situations, but (s)he'd be the one of the kids who didn't need a eulogy.

Smoking Scot
December 2014