Ferry appeared to make sudden turn, officials say

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Ferry appeared to make sudden turn, officials say

Maritime specialists are looking into the factors that may have led to or caused the Sewol ferry traveling to Jeju Island to capsize on Wednesday off Korea’s southwestern coast, from a crash with an underwater rock to a flaw in the design of the 6,825-ton vessel.

One assumption is that the captain deviated too far from the original route, by about 110 degrees, and failed to keep the boat stabilized, particularly given the fact that there was no damage on the outside of the ship to indicate it struck something.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries yesterday announced that the ferry appeared to make a sudden turn around 8:40 a.m., just before the Coast Guard received a distress call from the captain at 8:58 a.m.

“When a ship makes a sudden turn, it largely tilts to the side,” said Lee Seung-geon, a professor at Pusan National University. “When it lists within 15 degrees on the side, it could overcome centrifugal momentum, but in certain situations, it could list more.”

Lee added that if a ship is remodeled to load more cargo in a certain area on the boat, it could lose its balance and easily tilt.

“If there was no trace of an exterior clash, it would be the case that the ferry made a sudden turn and several containers and cargos slid to the side,” Yun Beom-sang, a professor at the University of Ulsan, said. “The ferry would be tilted more by the cargo leaning to a certain side, and seawater could enter through the deck.”

“Given the testimony that [passengers] heard a clash, cargo that slid to the side when the ship made a turn … could have [damaged the boat and] made a hole in the ferry,” said Lee Jae-su, a 64-year-old veteran captain.

But that assumption was refuted by other specialists.

“All ferries are designed to be able to take abrupt turns. So we can’t say a sudden turn was the primary cause,” said Yun Jong-hwi, a professor at Korea Maritime and Ocean University.

Another scenario is that the ferry was renovated to accommodate more cabins near the rear.

“If more cabins were built on the ferry, it could change the balance [center of mass] of the ferry,” said Bae Dong-myeong, a professor at Pukyong National University.

Otherwise, there is the possibility that a hole was made in the floor of the vessel when cargo was being loaded, not a hole on the side as was originally thought.

The fact that the captain steered the ferry over a zigzagged path could also have contributed to the accident, said Ahn Yeong-su, a professor at Gyeongsang National University.

“Given the testimony that the ferry sailed in a zigzag path, the captain probably tried to keep the boat’s center of mass stable if there was something in the ferry that was heavier than others,” Ahn said. “In doing so, the ferry could have capsized.”

Despite the announcement by the Korea Hydrographic and Oceanographic Administration that there was no rock beneath the ship, some specialists have continued to run with that theory.

“Even though there was no rock under the ship, we can’t rule out the possibility that it could have crashed with a rock,” said Yu Se-wan, a coast pilot. “Before it arrived where it [capsized], it could have been hit an underwater rock and continued to sail, with seawater filling the ferry after.”

According to Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, the boat was significantly aged, built in 1994 in Japan by a local builder and imported to Korea in 2012 by the Chonghaejin Maritime Company, a South Korean operator.

It started operations there in 2013, after safety checks, according to the Korean operator. The Coast Guard said there was no Voyage Data Recorder (VDR) in the ferry, so it would be difficult to determine the exact route of the ferry and to figure out the exact cause of the accident. Under Korean regulations, international ferries and cargo ships are required to be equipped with VDRs.

Yonhap News Agency reported yesterday that the ship’s operator, Chonghaejin, had suffered problems with its management for the past four years.

BY KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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