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The Sewol Ferry Tragedy

“How could he tell those young kids to stay there and jump from the sinking ship himself?” Ham Young-ho, grandfather of 17-year-old Lee Da-woon, one of the dead, speaking of the ship’s captain.

Danwon High School students at a candlelit vigil

Danwon High School students at a candlelit vigil, photo@eunjeong9412

Mostly, I stay away from watching television or the news, so I didn’t even know this tragedy had occurred until much later. Without the pictures, reports and images in my head, I’ve been somewhat disconnected.

But today, for some reason, I’ve been hit hard. I can’t stop crying.

I keep thinking about all of those high school students trapped in their cabins, waiting for rescue. And the agonizing wait of the parents on the shore. And how it all could’ve been avoided.

See the thing is, that Korean children are very naive and trusting. As a North American, I was shocked by how “young” and innocent the kids are here. Sixteen year olds seem like North American 12 years olds. I’ve even met 40 year old Korean mothers, who were shocked to find out about the existence of strip clubs. They are, mostly, really that innocent.

These children were told to stay in their cabins, while the captain and most of his crew jumped ship and were rescued. (A glaring exception being the heroic efforts of 22 year old, Park Ji-Young, who perished, saving students before herself). They obeyed. Because Korean children are taught, from the moment they are born, to obey authority unequivocally.

I’ve wondered why these teenagers didn’t leave their cabins, even while water was coming into their rooms and the boat was tilting drastically to one side. Was it simple obedience? Wouldn’t the instinct for survival be stronger than any need to follow orders?

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Reports have come out stating that passengers were told to stay in their cabins, because it was “safer,” and that the Coast Guard was only 10 minutes away. I can only think that the teenagers stayed put, because they thought this is how they would survive. By the time they realized it wasn’t, it was too late.

And to me, this is the real tragedy. The part that I can’t stop crying about. That they died unnecessarily, just when they were on the brink of graduating high school and beginning their adult lives. What an utter waste.

(I have hesitated to write about this until now, because I think I’m still processing, and we don’t know all the facts yet, but I felt that I needed to write something…)

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. A moving insight into this tragedy. Well written piece.

    April 18, 2014
  2. Sha #

    Yeah, I was reading about this as well and I couldn’t understand how they could have obeyed until the end because I would have just jumped ship. Nevertheless, it is still a tragedy that I wish could have been avoided. My condolences to their families. Really sad to think of all of them.

    April 18, 2014
    • That’s what I kept thinking too, and I have read reports now where people are saying it’s the “naughty” kids that are the ones that survived, but then I also read reports from survivors who said that, they just sat around for an hour cuz things didn’t seem very serious. The boat tilted suddenly and that’s when they started trying to get out…by then it was too late.

      At first I blamed everything on the captain, but I’m now realizing it’s too simplistic and easy to do that, especially hearing the transcripts now. He’s guilty of some things – cowardice maybe, bad judgement maybe, but the crew didn’t have ANY safety training, and no one can say how they would really react in that situation, without the benefit of training. SO many things went wrong…I mean even parents talking to their kids on board, who knew the boat was taking on water, didn’t tell them to jump ship. ๐Ÿ™ It’s just so much to digest and all so, so, so tragic. The whole country is in mourning.

      April 21, 2014
      • Sha #

        Yeah, I was watching the coverage on kbs world and arirang. Really sad to listen to all of it. I read that they were all in the hallway and by the time they wanted to get out it was too late because there was no way out. Really really sad to hear. The most heardbreaking ones are the phone calls and messages that I was reading because they already knew they couldn’t get out by then. I read that they just found a way in yesterday so I expect the body count to increase. So so sad to watch even from far away here. ๐Ÿ™

        April 21, 2014
  3. Just like tanzalongs has said, there is a moving insight in this awful tragedy. I know it’s not completely related but the trick in obedience has been a large part of the wars we had. Just imagine the workers of Nazi concentration camp obeying to inhumane treatment and suicide bombers sacrificing life over their duty. There are also those nurses and young women in Okinawa who rather commit suicide jumping off cliffs just to escape maltreatment or rape from their aggressors.

    I really felt the strong emotion to what you shared here. It really is tragic.

    April 19, 2014
    • I’m just going to second Rommel on this one – a tragedy, both literally and of human psychology.

      April 19, 2014
      • Alina, I am still just so, so sad. ๐Ÿ™ Still crying off and on. I don’t know if I’m feeling all the vibrations from being here or if it’s because it’s like I see the face of my mother, my brother, my sister and my father – in all of these victims, but I don’t usually get this personally affected by these tragedies that unfortunately never stop occurring.

        April 21, 2014
        • Oh my goodness… I’m sorry you’re so affected by this, Shelley. Every once in a while the same thing happens to me, too. I get really, really upset by a tragedy that could easily have been avoided, and I feel bad for days. One of the worse episodes was when I watched the movie “The Lovely Bones.” The girl who gets killed looks a lot like my sister, and I cried for probably an hour after the film was over. And that’s not even a real scenario (though things like that happen every day). I hope you feel better soon, but remember that your sadness is evidence of your humanness, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that.

          April 21, 2014
    • Yes Rommel, I understand what you’re saying. At first I thought the culture of obedience played a big part, but the more I read and hear about it, the more I think, it was a part, but not a very big part. People didn’t realize how bad the situation was because it was never communicated to them properly. This is a whole post, but there are just layers and layers of culture informing this whole thing. The captain made catastrophic mistakes, there is no doubt about that, but he had NO SAFETY TRAINING. The first mate is even quoted as saying he didn’t have time to read the evacuation manual!!! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

      To me, unless you are an extraordinarily brave person (like Park Ji-Young), your instinct is for self-preservation…unless you have training to act otherwise. I looked at the photo of the captain’s rescue, and when he jumped ship, the boat was already almost 90 degrees into the water! I am not excusing him. Different judgements earlier in the process could’ve saved everyone on that boat (but even this is not entirely his fault – what of the company that didn’t train him properly, or the government that rubber-stamps safety certificates for the sake of efficiency?) but I don’t know that I can blame him for saving himself at that point. I can’t say that I wouldn’t do the same in that situation.

      April 21, 2014
  4. Stay strong ๐Ÿ™

    April 28, 2014
    • A week later, I’m feeling much better. Just hope that all of the families of the victims AND survivors, and rescue divers for that matter, can gather some strength, knowing that we are all grieving together. ๐Ÿ™

      April 29, 2014
  5. It is indeed a heartbreaking tragedy ๐Ÿ™ One after another… :'(

    May 7, 2014
    • Really terrible. I suppose we feel these ones more because they are close to home, but awful things are happening all over the world, all the time. Must focus on the good and positive as much as we can.

      May 8, 2014
      • Yeah, we have to be positive and optimistic in life! Then, I am sure we will become better :))

        May 8, 2014
  6. Beautifully written and thoughtfully expressed, Shelley. This post is a good example of why I follow your blog.

    May 19, 2014
    • It’s funny because when I was writing this, I felt that I’d done a terrible job expressing things, because it just felt so far from the depth of what I was feeling about it. Thank you for this comment. It really makes me feel good…and especially coming from you. ๐Ÿ™‚

      May 20, 2014

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