Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 — The sun shined bright, the cool breeze wiped the sweat from my forehead, everyone was smiling from ear to ear, and I thought, ‘what a day for an amazing trip’.
476 passengers boarded the enormous ferry heading towards the Jeju Island, south of the Korean peninsula. My friends and I were amazed by the massive scale of the ship, which looked to us like the Titanic.
I had been studying math for seven hours straight the day before, so I decided to take a nap, shaking off the temptation to play mobile games with my friends.
A few hours later, I woke up by the noise of students shouting with fear. Some were crying, some looked ignorant, some were hopeless,and some were putting on the life vests.
In the midst of the chaos, the calm voice of the captain delivered a message saying that it’s just a trivial problem in the ferry’s engine systems.He instructedeveryone to settle down and remain still.
The passengers faced a terrifying choice: to obey the captain and to stay in place, or to put on the life vests and escape. I chose the latter,and my friends who remained on the boat, bidding their last hopeful farewells, still haunt me in my dreams.
- An imagined narrative of the sinking of the ferry Sewol based on the testimonies of survivors
One of the things that I miss the most from Korean schools is field trips. Field trips made my transition from international school in the Philippines to Korean public school much easier than I expected, as I was able to form stronger friendships than the ones I previously had by spending nights with them in cities I have never been before.
Last week marked the fourth anniversary of the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol, in which hundreds of students on a school trip were drowned off the coast of South Korea.
As families of the victims continue to mourn, recent incidents in the country seem to indicate that the public and the government have already forgotten the great sorrow of the tragedy.
At the time, a CNN headline read: “Students told ‘stay put’as a ferry sank.”An enormous ship with 476 passengers heading towards Jeju island sank down under the deep ocean in a blink of an eye.
Unsurprisingly, the captain who instructed all the passengers to stay put was the first one to escape, while more than three hundred students who firmly believed in his words drowned under the deep cold ocean in a blink of an eye.
This one irresponsible utterance by the captain led to the irrevocable catastrophe, probably one of the most shameful and miserable accidents in South Korean history.
Former Korean president Park Geun-hye was blamed for not taking serious measures to remedy the situation. When every second could be a life-saving moment, the media accused the president of spending that time to finish watching a television series.
Has anything changed since the election of president Moon Jae-In and a new government? Were the lives of the students enough to provoke a change?
Taking into account of recent incidents, such as the deadly fire in a sauna killing 29 people and the fire at a hospital in Miryang of 37 casualties, the answer seems to be no.
The investigation of the Miryang fire found that the recent fire accidents resulted in relatively larger casualties mainly due to the oblivious attitude of the people towards emergency situations, in addition to the lack of safety facilities, insufficient inspection system, and lack of personnel.
Public opinion in Korea is divided on whether to blame the people or the government: either the citizens were not aware of the procedures to follow when theseaccidents occurred, orthe slow reaction of the public safety services alloweda small breeze to become a giant hurricane.
As a citizen of South Korea, I believe that the main cause of such accidents is the irresponsibility of my fellow citizens. Koreans aren’t aware of the importance of safety procedures and have a compliant mindset of “that accident wouldn’t happen to me.” For example, one day when I was in middle school, there was a fire in a chemistry lab. I remember my classmates running around, screaming and laughing as if it was some kind of a joke. Korean students are renowned for their relatively advanced math skills, but they don’t even know the emergency procedures for a chemistry lab.
As families of the Sewol victims gathered and held protests toward the government, demanding an investigation into President Park’s whereabouts during the critical period of the accident (some sevenhours), the boat’s captain was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment, and his crewmen imprisoned for up to 12 years.
First came the tears, then justice to those who brought those tears. But what’s next? With each accident or disaster since the Sewol, it seems that the public is focused on finding a scapegoat, rather than identifying the root causes and finding a solution to rectify them.
Now is not the time to decide who to blame and who to incarcerate. Although public interest today seems to be concentrated in the reconciliation of the North and the South, people must not forget that the biggest threat to public safety may even lie within themselves.