• Lessons from the Sewol sinking

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    On Wednesday last week, the Korean ferry Sewol capsized and sank with 238 people still unaccounted for, although 64 have been confirmed dead, say reports from Agence France-Presse.

    The sinking of the Sewol could perhaps be a bit surprising to Philippine maritime agencies, since South Korea is a developed country that prides itself on being a leading ship builder and maritime country, and on presumably having strong oversight in sea and air safety.

    But the sinking of the Sewol on April 16 should remind Philippine maritime authorities that Murphy’s Law can always strike, or “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

    And almost everything went wrong on that day. It appears that Captain Lee Joon-Seok’s not acting   appropriately as Sewol began to sink added to    the horrors.

    While it was only on Monday that South Korean president Park Guen-Hye said that she would hold those liable for the ferry sinking, it is comforting that the country’s leader has given an assurance that those accountable for the sea tragedy will eventually be punished.

    Also, the assistance given by volunteers to the grieving relatives of the victims is nothing but admirable. Finally, how the dead were handled by the both the media and rescuers is remarkable, because all the bodies that were plucked out from the wreckage were immediately wrapped decently and not shown the media, or left sprawled on the pavement for all the public to see. This is something nauseatingly commonplace in Philippine tragedies.

    It should not also be a surprise that in the next few months, those responsible for the ferry tragedy will be punished, jailed and banished, and the South Korean parliament might enact sweeping changes to their country’s maritime laws.

    In the Philippines, maritime tragedies have become a common occurrence, but many of the wrongdoers have gone unpunished.

    The Philippine interisland shipping industry still remains a protected one, since foreign investors are restricted in that industry.

    And not much has been heard about the latest sea tragedy in the country – the sinking of the MV St. Thomas Aquinas on August 2013 after it collided with the MV Sulpicio Express Siete. The dead from that collision reached 114 while 23 remain missing.

    Compared to the St. Thomas Aquinas tragedy, Korean authorities acted swiftly on finding out what went wrong in the Sewol tragedy, because the transcript from the ship showed panic, and indecision paralyzed decision-making at the bridge of the ship.

    But if there is anything that can be learned by the Koreans from the St. Thomas Aquinas tragedy, it is that its captain immediately ordered the abandoning of the ship and the crew promptly handing over life jackets to the passengers. Such quick decision-making by the captain of the St. Thomas Aquinas and the immediate action taken by its crew are truly admirable. wonder Filipinos are ranked among the world’s top mariners.

    However, a comparison of the Sewol and St. Thomas Aquinas tragedies will show that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) badly needs an upgrading of its equipment.

    South Korean authorities fielded more naval assets and men to the disaster area, who in less than two days recovered 24 bodies. The Times is not chastising the men of the PCG, but it is very clear that the coast guard needs more men, assets and funding for it to respond more effectively to maritime disasters.

    Another Philippine agency that can gain lessons from the tragedy is the Department of Education (DepEd). Of the Sewol’s 476 people on board, 352 were high school students headed for the holiday island of Jeju. Perhaps the DepEd should remind all schools in the Philippines to think twice on setting out on seaborne field trips.

    If South Korean authorities succeed in jailing people accountable for the Sewol tragedy, the Philippines should take note because as of now, there are numerous relatives of victims of sea tragedies who are still crying for justice. One good example are the relatives of the more than 400 victims of the sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars on June 21, 2008, which is not the only sea tragedy in Philippine waters during the past six years.

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