ANSAN, South Korea — For South Korea, a country that pulled itself out of abject poverty to become the world’s 15th-largest economy, the most stinging accusation about last week’s ferry sinking is that it looks like a Third-World disaster.
While the captain escaped and the crew dithered and bickered with emergency officials, hundreds of passengers, most of them high school students, obediently remained in their cabins as the ferry rolled and slipped beneath the surface of the cold, gray sea.
Mistake piled atop mistake turned a near-shore mishap into the nation’s worst maritime disaster in decades. The calamity has shamed many South Koreans and left them with serious doubt about their political leaders at a moment when they were preparing for a high-profile visit from President Obama, who is slated to arrive Thursday night.
“We are supposed to be a prosperous middle power, but the fundamentals are still weak,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “There was no control tower, nobody in charge.”
The botched rescue also has cast a harsh light on a Confucian culture in which young people are taught to respect the older generation.
“I feel embarrassed as a Korean. We failed our children,” said Kim Seun-tae, a 50-year-old minister whose son attends Danwon High School, which had 350 students and faculty members among the 476 people aboard the ship. Kim’s son was not on the ferry.
The minister said he was struck by video from survivors’ cellphones that showed the mostly 16- and 17-year-old students sitting dutifully in their seats.
“They were good, well-behaved kids. They followed instructions,” Kim said. “Everybody is in a state of shock and depression. We can’t look each other in the eye or speak.”
Some events initially planned for the presidential visit have been toned down to avoid any appearance of festivities at a time when divers will probably still be plucking bodies from the sunken vessel, according to people involved in the planning. More than 160 passengers remained missing as of Tuesday, with 139 confirmed dead.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who made the protection of youths one of the themes of her administration, lashed out Monday at the crew members who abandoned the ship, saying the “behavior of the captain and some crew members is beyond understanding and no better than homicide.”
But Park faces accusations that her newly restructured Ministry of Security and Public Administration failed at its first disaster response.
“They were civil servants with no experience or expertise. When it came to a time of crisis, people were paralyzed,” said Jeong Chan-gwon of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Crisis Management Analysis.
“When she called the captain a ‘murderer,’ it showed clearly how much political pressure she is under,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations, who was visiting Seoul last week.
A panicked and inexperienced crew failed to call the coast guard, instead notifying the vessel traffic service at their destination on Jeju Island, about 50 miles away.
It took 53 minutes for the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters to mobilize. Meanwhile, the 69-year-old captain had already left the ship. Most of the crew members survived, while more than two-thirds of the passengers appear to have been lost.
Even before the official call for distress, students used their cellphones to call their parents and the South Korean emergency number.
“Help us. The boat is sinking,” one boy reportedly told emergency dispatchers, according to a report Wednesday on Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting.
“The kids had never been on a ferry like that before. They didn’t know what to do. They could have been saved,” said Kim Seong-kyu, 19, a school student who was among the mourners leaving white chrysanthemums and handwritten messages at a makeshift shrine outside the school.
Among those being mourned was one of the surviving teachers from the doomed expedition who hanged himself from a tree last week in Jindo, the port city where families are staying.
Seven crew members have been arrested, including the captain, a semi-retired and part-time pilot who had been called at the last minute to command the 6,825-ton ship. He was in his cabin when the boat ran into trouble, with a 25-year-old third mate at the helm. Investigators believe that a sharp right turn by the novice might have caused the ferry’s cargo to shift, putting it in an irreversible list.
The 20-year-old vessel was purchased from Japan and refurbished in 2012 to accommodate more cargo and passengers for its regular overnight journeys between Incheon port and Jeju, a resort island off the southern coast.
The vessel had passed inspection in February, but former crew members have complained to South Korean media that they feared the boat was top-heavy.
“The boat had stability problems. It had been remodeled to carry more freight and more passengers than it should have,” said Shin Sang-chul, a former shipbuilding executive.
Shin believes the ferry had been listing throughout the voyage and that the crew failed to alert authorities about the situation.
Whatever the cause, the remaining personnel were clearly unfamiliar with evacuation procedures. A transcript of a telephone call with the port in Jindo, revealed a crew in a state of panic and confusion.
“At least make them wear life rings and make them escape,” the port operator yelled at the crew, according to the transcript. “A helicopter will be there and other ships nearby are approaching.”
The crew resisted repeated suggestions that passengers evacuate, saying that the public announcement system was broken, that the ship was too tilted to move about, or that there were too many passengers to fit into the helicopter.
“It’s completely impossible for the Sewol ferry to evacuate,” the crew responded.
The equivocation proved fatal.
In the end, it appeared that most of the students followed earlier instructions to don life vests but remain in their seats and cabins. Fewer than 80 were among the 174 passengers and crew pulled from the capsizing boat, according to official tallies.
Many parents and residents in Ansan complain that the government assured them in the early hours of the disaster that most of the 325 students aboard had been rescued.
“They’ve lied to us all along,” said a man in a Red Cross uniform at an emergency center in Ansan, who said he could not be quoted by name because of his position. “The parents believe that the government buried our young children alive at sea.”
For Song In-ji, a 15-year-old freshman at the Danwon school, that might be the most enduring lesson from the tragedy: Don’t trust adults.
“I can’t understand how they could stay in their seats as the water was rising,” the boy said. “We can’t trust anyone anymore.”