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A day of infamy: We can`t hand down a shameful country
APRIL 18, 2014 01:18  
It is heart-breaking to just imagine the fear that young students might have felt in the pitch dark under the bone-chilling sea water for the second day. The entire nation desperately prayed that some would overcome the fear of death and return in a miracle. Still, the prayers have yet to be answered.

There is growing possibility that the accident was caused by a sudden shift in the ferry`s center of gravity when it took a sharp turn to change its course. The site of the accident is a turning point where southbound and northbound ferries exchange their routes.

The maritime police investigating the accident said that the sudden turn of the bow caused freight to slide to one side, resulting in a loss of the gravity center.

The public is even angrier over the disaster because it happened under the Park Geun-hye administration, which pledged to enhance public safety. It even changed the name of the Ministry of Public Administration and Security to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration. The government set the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters in motion, with the minister of Security and Public Administration as its chief. However, the headquarters came under public criticism for having failed to accurately count the numbers of the rescued and the missing. The headquarters kept changing the numbers even after 24 hours following the accident. To prevent such a problem, the maritime law requires passengers on board ships to submit their personal information. Had the shipping company abided by the law and the government properly monitored them, accurate number would have been made public earlier.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries set up its own disaster headquarters soon after the accident but remained positive about the safety of most passengers until two hours after the shipwreck. Minister Lee Ju-young visited the maritime police headquarters in Incheon, not the site of the disaster. Families of the missing complained about slow rescue operations and the lack of divers. The government`s easy attitude is to blame. Amid the continued confusion among government agencies, the government did not set up the central control tower at the South Regional Headquarters Korea Coast Guard until Thursday, with Prime Minister Chung Hong-won as the chief.

Under the education ministry`s guideline, schools are supposed to send up to four classes or around 150 students on field trips. However, few schools abide by the guideline because it is only a recommendation. Although an increasing number of students use ferries or airplanes for field trips, the education ministry`s guideline has safety manuals only for vehicles but does not for ships or airplanes.

International ferries conduct emergency drills very frequently because they have to pass inspections by an international organization to be allowed to operate. Under Korean law, domestic ferries are also supposed to conduct an emergence drill every 10 days. However, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and the coast guard do not properly supervise ferry operators. Even if they fail to respond to inspections, there is no law or regulation to impose sanctions. The wrecked ferry`s had 46 life boats but only one of them was deployed properly. There were 270 life vests on board, far short of the number of passengers. The authorities should conduct a thorough investigation into whether the operator abided by rules and come up with measures to prevent recurrences of such disasters.

Despite rescue workers` desperate efforts, it is regrettable that no additional survivors were rescued for the second day. The rescue team began to inject oxygen into the air pocket in order to increase the possibility of survival by those who might be trapped there, only after the missing passengers` families demanded so. We understand the difficulties the rescue workers are facing, but the rescue operation seems to be too slow and loose. There seems to be no other explanation than the government`s incompetence in gathering rescue workers and systemically deploy them.

When a shipwreck killed 292 people in 1993, we hoped that such a disaster would never happen again and thought that it would not. Two decades later, another shipwreck has caused an outrageous disaster. The number of the dead and the missing is larger than that of the 1993 accident. Even more shocking is that most of them are students and teachers from one school. We should call April 16 "a day of infamy" and renew our commitment to never handing down a shameful country to future generations.

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