Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Sinkings in South Korea and China present divers different tests

As divers scramble to save hundreds trapped in a capsized cruise ship in China's Yangtze River, the scene in some ways evokes Northeast Asia's last major maritime disaster: the ferry sinking last year that killed more than 300 people off South Korea's southwest coast. Yet even at this early stage, there are far more differences than similarities.

Here are some key points comparing the South Korean and Chinese sinkings:


Already, Chinese divers have reportedly pulled two survivors from the cruise ship, with four others located. It took divers in South Korea more than three agonizing days just to enter the ferry Sewol after it sank on April 16, 2014. By that time, all they could do was retrieve bodies. For those three days, as TV cameras filmed the ferry as it sank, and a stunned nation watched, divers and rescue workers failed repeatedly to get into the ship. Officials said the extreme currents around the South Korean islands where the ferry sank, the cold water temperature and the unpredictable weather made it too dangerous for divers to enter.


Outrage will likely take a different form in China than it did in South Korea, where families of victims sometimes accosted and screamed at officials who visited the scene of the disaster. That anger lingers among many here who see the rescue operations as criminally botched. For the last year, dozens have camped in a major South Korean square to protest the government's handling of the disaster. So great was the uproar that South Korea's president eventually disbanded the much-maligned coast guard, creating a new body meant to oversee national safety issues. Though families in China's capsizing are already expressing their anger, it seems unlikely something similar could happen in their authoritarian country, where crackdowns on dissent are common.


One similarity: Both captains survived. It is too early to say what will happen in China, of course, but the Sewol captain is one of the most hated men in recent South Korean history. He was among the first to escape, filmed by cameras leaping in his underpants from the sinking ship onto a coast guard vessel. He was arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need. The rage that he escaped early and unhurt was compounded here by claims that he and his crew botched the evacuation, telling the mostly schoolchildren inside to remain where they were, even as the ship sank and capsized. In April, the captain was given a sentence of life in prison by an appellate court on a homicide conviction.


It's not clear how successful the Chinese rescue operations will be or, if largely unsuccessful, how long the recovery of bodies will take. But the Sewol recovery operations dragged on for seven months, until November when the government called them off. By that time, they'd searched for more than 200 days and recovered 295 bodies; nine are still missing. The physical toll was extreme. Every day divers would gather at a dock and check the weather and currents. If allowed to dive, they had to feel along the side of the ship until they could find a window they could crack open with hammers. Thick sediment inside often made flashlights useless, and divers had to creep along using their hands to feel where they were. Their only lifeline was a 100-meter oxygen hose, and it was a constant battle to keep it from getting snagged. Several divers had to make rapid ascents to the surface, risking decompression sickness, also known as the bends, which in severe cases can be fatal. Two divers died in the Sewol operations.

Tuesday 2 June 2015



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