Disaster’s management scrutinized

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Disaster’s management scrutinized

Public anger over the government’s poor handling of the disaster intensified as rescuers scrambled yesterday to locate any possible survivors, mostly high school students, after the 6,825-ton Sewol ferry capsized Wednesday off Korea’s southwestern coast.

The accident is perhaps the biggest tragedy in the nation’s maritime history in decades, which has so far left at least 10 people dead and 286 still missing. Since news of the sinking broke on Wednesday, the Coast Guard and government agencies have released several false reports on the number of casualties and survivors, which drastically differed from later accounts.

With rescue efforts entering the second day, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries still could not provide an official number of how many people were aboard the vessel.

The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters first announced on Wednesday that rescue workers had plucked a total of 368 people from the water, but later backtracked, saying the figure was 164, and then claiming 175 on Wednesday night - as well as shooting the number of those missing up to nearly 300 from the aforementioned 100. Around noon on Wednesday, the Gyeonggi Provincial Office of Education texted reporters stating that all the people onboard had been rescued and were safe.

The agency and the shipping company were also both mistaken in identifying how many had boarded the ship departing for Jeju Island - a figure that should have been more straightforward than the amount of causalities.

The authorities and the company reversed their earlier estimates at least three times. The latest figure for the total number of people on board the ferry, as of press time, stood at 475.

The ministry also did not have safety checklists to determine whether the ferry had complied with the appropriate safety and emergency measures. Each shipping company is required to obtain approval from the Oceans Ministry rather than follow regulations under a singular law.

When asked whether the Chonghaejin Marine Company, the maker of the sunken ferry, adhered to the safety rules submitted by the company, the Oceans Ministry said that it did not have the document, adding that the Coast Guard was in charge of carrying out those tasks.

“The Coast Guard autonomously handles those responsibilities, deciding whether to give the green light or not on navigation rules,” said Jeon Gi-jeong, the head of the shipping and logistics division at the Oceans Ministry.

The Coast Guard declined to disclose the company’s safety guidelines.

The vice minister of the Security and Public Administration Ministry came under fire after he failed to provide basic information or clear answers relating to the number of casualties of the accident. “As we took into consideration all the data from the marine police, the government and individual fisheries officials, there was some confusion,” Vice Minister Lee Kyung-ok said Wednesday.

BY PARK EUN-JEE, CHOI SEON-WOOK [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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