South Korea ferry disaster

South Korea ferry was ‘routinely overloaded’ with cargo

Sewol routinely sailed with too much cargo due to South Korean regulatory failures

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 8:10am

The doomed ferry Sewol exceeded its cargo limit on 246 trips - nearly every voyage it made in which it reported cargo - in the 13 months before it sank, according to documents that reveal a series of regulatory failures.

The disaster has exposed enormous safety gaps in South Korea's monitoring of domestic passenger ships, which is in some ways less rigorous than its rules for ships that handle only cargo.

Collectively, the country's regulators had more than enough information to conclude that the Sewol was routinely overloaded, but because they did not share that data and were not required to do so, it was practically useless.

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The Korean Register of Shipping examined the Sewol early last year as it was being redesigned to handle more passengers. The register slashed the ship's cargo capacity by more than half, to 987 tonnes, and said the vessel needed to carry more than 2,000 tonnes of water to stay balanced.

But the register gave its report only to the ship owner, Chonghaejin Marine. Neither the coastguard nor the Korean Shipping Association, which regulates domestic passenger ships, appear to have had any knowledge of the new limit before the disaster.

"That's a blind spot in the law," said Lee Kyu-yeul, a professor emeritus at Seoul National University's department of naval architecture.

Chonghaejin reported much greater cargo capacity to the shipping association: 3,963 tonnes, according to a coastguard official in Incheon who had access to the documentation.

Since the redesigned ferry began operating in March 2013, it made nearly 200 round trips - 394 individual voyages - from Incheon port near Seoul to the southern island of Jeju. On 246 of those voyages, the Sewol exceeded the 987-tonne limit, according to documents from Incheon port.

More than 2,000 tonnes of cargo was reported on 136 of the Sewol's trips, and it topped 3,000 tonnes 12 times. But the records indicate it never carried as much as it did on its final disastrous voyage: Moon Ki-han, a vice-president at Union Transport, the company that loaded the ship, has said it was carrying an estimated 3,608 tonnes of cargo.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye yesterday vowed that any culprits would be "sternly punished" as the confirmed death toll rose to 244.

Eight more bodies were recovered yesterday, while 58 remain unaccounted for.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse