Sunk South Korean ferry was ‘routinely overloaded’

President Park Geun-hye, right, consoles a relative of a passenger on the Sewol. Picture: Yonhap/AP
President Park Geun-hye, right, consoles a relative of a passenger on the Sewol. Picture: Yonhap/AP
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The doomed ferry Sewol exceeded its cargo limit on 246 trips – nearly every voyage it made in which it reported cargo – in the 13 months before it sank, according to documents. And it may have been more overloaded than ever on its final journey.

The news came as South Korean president Park Geun-hye met relatives of those on board the ferry, which sank on 16 April. Some 244 people are now confirmed dead. Another 174 were rescued; 58 are unaccounted for.

Ms Park told relatives: “I feel a sense of unlimited responsibility …it is heart-rending to imagine how you must be feeling.

“A thorough investigation will be conducted to find those who were responsible and criminally at fault … and they will be punished severely.”

The disaster has exposed enormous gaps in South Korea’s safety monitoring of domestic passenger ships.

Collectively, the country’s regulators held more than enough information to conclude that the Sewol was routinely overloaded, but because they did not share that data and were not required to do so, it was useless.

The Korean Register of Shipping examined the Sewol early last year as it was being redesigned to handle more passengers. It slashed the ship’s cargo capacity by more than half, to 987 tonnes, and said it needed to carry more than 2,000 tonnes of water to stay balanced.

But the Register gave its report only to the ship’s owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd. Neither the coast guard nor the Korean Shipping Association, which regulates and oversees departures and arrivals of domestic passenger ships, appear to have had any knowledge of the new limit before the disaster. “That’s a blind spot in the law,” said Lee Kyu-Yeul, professor emeritus at Seoul National University’s department of naval architecture and ocean engineering.

Chonghaejin Marine reported much greater cargo capacity to the shipping association – 3,963 tonnes, according to a coast guard official in Incheon who had access to the documents.

Since the redesigned ferry began operating in March 2013, it made nearly 200 round trips – 394 individual voyages – from Incheon port near Seoul to the southern island of Jeju. On 246, the Sewol exceeded the 987-tonne limit, according to documents from Incheon port.

And the limit may have been exceeded even more frequently than that: In all but one of the other 148 trips, zero cargo was recorded – it is not mandatory for passenger ferries to report cargo to the port operator.

More than 2,000 tonnes of cargo was reported on 136 of the Sewol’s trips, and it topped 3,000 tonnes 12 times.

Moon Ki-han, a vice-president at Union Transport Co, the firm that loaded the ship for its final voyage, has said it was carrying an estimated 3,608 tonnes of cargo for that trip.

The port operator has no record of the cargo from the Sewol’s last voyage, as ferry operators submit that information only after trips are completed.

In paperwork filed before the Sewol’s last voyage, Captain Lee Joon-seok reported a much smaller final load than the one Moon described, according to a coast guard official. The paperwork said the Sewol was loaded with 150 cars and 657 tonnes of cargo. That would fall within the 987-tonne limit, but it is clearly inaccurate, as the coast guard has found 180 cars in the water.

An official with the Korea Shipping Association’s safety team said: “The only person on any vessel who knows the exact cargo safety limit, excluding ballast water, fuel, passengers and others, is the first mate.”