Age, safety standards of ferries called into question

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Age, safety standards of ferries called into question

The conditions of ships nationwide have come under strict scrutiny following the Sewol ferry disaster last week that left more than 300 passengers, mostly high school students, dead or missing.

The capsized and now submerged vessel was originally manufactured in Japan and had been operating since 1994.

A Korean company bought the ferry in 2012, though some have suggested that the ship was outdated or too old, which may have factored into the accident. Sixty-seven ferries, or 30.9 percent of ferries countrywide, are more than 20 years old, according to the Korea Shipping Association. Of the ferries bound for Jeju Island, more than 60 percent was more than two decades old.

Shipping analysts say that if more than 20 years have passed since the ship was manufactured, the vessel is considered relatively old.

However, in 2009, the Lee Myung-bak administration increased the legal age for vessels to operate from 25 to 30 years.

The oldest ferry still in use is Jeju World, which was built in 1986. It originally sailed a route between Incheon and Dandong, China, though in 2012, the ship’s owner, Doowoo Shipping, shifted its course. It now runs between Sacheon, in South Gyeongsang, and Jeju.

In July 2012, Jeju World experienced a problem with its generator 30 minutes after it departed from Samcheonpo Port in Sacheon, and the 82 passengers onboard were forced to wait for rescue parties.

Despite the ship’s advanced age - it’s nearly 30 - Jeju World this year received approval to increase the number of passengers that it can carry. Presently, the ferry can accommodate up to 620 passengers, a jump from 550 the previous year. Doowoo Shipping said that the vessel can accommodate the increased number of passengers due to its design.

But in response to the tragic Sewol ferry accident, government agencies have been scrambling to examine the older ships, including Jeju World.

Hong Jun-pyo, South Gyeongsang governor, visited Samcheonpo port last Thursday and urged officials to conduct safety inspections to preempt any possible defect.

The Coast Guard will officially carry out the safety test this week.

Doowoo Shipping said that even though they received the approval for more passengers, the ship currently operates within a capacity of 520 people.

“Now we can technically handle more than 600 passengers,” a Doowoo Shipping representative told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “But we don’t carry more than 520 people because of safety concerns. Because the ship is old, we regularly conduct safety checkups.”

Chonghaejin Marine Company, the owner of the doomed Sewol ferry, proved to have poor safety records: The firm’s 396-ton ferry, Democracy No. 5, collided with a fishing boat on March 28 on its way from Incheon to Baengnyeong Island. The Democracy No. 5 also had a history of abruptly ceasing operations due to defects in its engine system.

The 6,852-ton Sewol ferry, which could reach speeds of 21 knots, measured 146 meters (479 feet) long and 22 meters wide. It ran twice a week from Incheon, west of Seoul, to Jeju Island in 13.5 hours.

BY PARK EUN-JEE [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]



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