Safety vigilance is fading alreadyIt’s been two months since the Sewol ferry sunk in waters off Jindo, South Jeolla, claiming the lives of nearly 300 victims. But Koreans have already returned to their slipshod ways, forgetting the bitter lesson that negligence of safety can lead to tragedy.
Last month, the joint investigation team of prosecutors and police tentatively concluded the ferry heading to Jeju Island from Incheon lost stability because of a lack of ballast water. Ballast water is used to keep ships steady in navigation. The authorities suspect Chonghaejin Marine Company, the Sewol operator, intentionally didn’t fill the correct amount of water in the ballast tanks to load more cargo.
When the Seokyung Island ferry departed from Busan for Jeju Island on Wednesday, monitors throughout the ferry showed a video demonstrating the use of life jackets. But the video’s volume was turned down and the 800 passengers ignored it.
“Please watch the video that shows how to wear life jackets on the TVs,” a crew member announced on the loudspeakers.
But the video had already finished.
“I didn’t even know they were showing us how to wear life jackets,” a 68-year-old passenger, Kim Bok-ja, told a JoongAng Ilbo reporter. “What do they want us to do when we can’t even hear such an important safety warning?”
When reporters from the JoongAng Ilbo boarded domestic ferries a month ago and again last Wednesday, the ferries seemed to be slipping back into their old, careless ways.
The ferries did improve on identifying passengers and tying down cargo, but other measures to keep passengers safe in case of emergency, such as safety education, didn’t appear to be sufficient. Passengers also expressed their concerns.
“I looked around the ferry just to make sure, but life rafts were rusted here and there,” said passenger Kim Jin-su, 68. “I am not sure whether they will work in emergency situations.”
The situation wasn’t any better Wednesday on the Sunflower ferry carrying hundreds of passengers from Pohang to Ulleung Island.
Life jacket cabinets had garbage in them and many of the jackets were covered with dust.
Some of the passengers shrugged off the rules, too. A man was smoking in the ferry’s restroom, where smoking is prohibited, and some others were sleeping right by emergency exits. Three of the Sunflower’s six emergency exits were blocked by sleeping passengers.
“Smoking and blocking those exits are directly related to passengers’ lives, but some passengers are not following our instructions,” said the ferry’s navigator, Kim Gi-dong. “Operator and crew of ferries must do their best for safety, but passengers also should heighten their awareness.”
Though it was a ferry that sank on April 16, the accident was like a national wake-up call for many other safety issues. Dance clubs near Hongik University in Mapo District, western Seoul, for example, were found to be violating many safety regulations.
When a reporter from the JoongAng Ilbo visited a club Friday, some 50 people were waiting in line to get in. Going down a dark stairway guided by employees, about 100 people were dancing on a stage with huge loudspeakers and a bar.
The reporter followed an emergency exit sign, but the exit was locked. The dark stairway would be the only exit if a fire broke out.
The 165-square-meter (1,776-square-foot) club was also violating a law that stipulates entertainment businesses larger than 66 square meters must have operable emergency exits other than the main entrance.
Such transgressions can lead to mass tragedy, such as a fire in a night club in Brazil that killed 232 people and a similar case in Russia that killed 152. Those two clubs did not have emergency exits.
“To be honest, when I go to clubs, I’ve never checked where emergency exits were,” said a 30-year-old customer. “We just enjoy ourselves without worrying about fires.”
When the reporter patrolled clubs with fire officers from the Mapo Fire Station, the clubs were not strictly following relevant regulations. A club in the area was keeping its fire extinguisher in the wrong place and another one did not have a fire detector, emergency lights or flashlights, which are mandated by law.
BY HONG GWEON-SAM AND LEE SEUNG-HO [email@example.com]