Delay in ferry evacuation puzzles maritime experts

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FILE – In this April 16, 2014 file photo, South Korean coast guard officers try to rescue passengers from the Sewol ferry as it sinks in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea. It is a decision that has maritime experts stumped and is at odds with standard procedure: Why were the passengers of the doomed South Korean ferry told to stay in their rooms rather than climb on deck? Evacuations can be chaotic and dangerous, and an important principle in maritime circles is that even a damaged ship may be the best lifeboat. But car ferries like the Sewol, which left some 300 people missing or dead when it sank Wednesday, are different. They are particularly susceptible to rapid capsizing which makes it critically important that the crew quickly evacuate passengers when there is trouble. (AP Photo/Yonhap, File) KOREA OUT

FILE – In this April 16, 2014 file photo, South Korean coast guard officers try to rescue passengers from the Sewol ferry as it sinks in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea. It is a decision that has maritime experts stumped and is at odds with standard procedure: Why were the passengers of the doomed South Korean ferry told to stay in their rooms rather than climb on deck? Evacuations can be chaotic and dangerous, and an important principle in maritime circles is that even a damaged ship may be the best lifeboat. But car ferries like the Sewol, which left some 300 people missing or dead when it sank Wednesday, are different. They are particularly susceptible to rapid capsizing which makes it critically important that the crew quickly evacuate passengers when there is trouble. (AP Photo/Yonhap, File) KOREA OUT

FILE – In this April 16, 2014 file photo, released by South Korea Coast Guard via Yonhap News Agency, South Korean rescue team boats and fishing boats try to rescue passengers of the sinking Sewol ferry, off South Korea’s southern coast,near Jindo, south of Seoul. It is a decision that has maritime experts stumped and is at odds with standard procedure: Why were the passengers of the doomed South Korean ferry told to stay in their rooms rather than climb on deck? Evacuations can be chaotic and dangerous, and an important principle in maritime circles is that even a damaged ship may be the best lifeboat. But car ferries like the Sewol, which left some 300 people missing or dead when it sank Wednesday, are different. They are particularly susceptible to rapid capsizing which makes it critically important that the crew quickly evacuate passengers when there is trouble. (AP Photo/South Korea Coast Guard via Yonhap, File) KOREA OUT

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MOKPO, South Korea (AP) — It is a decision that has maritime experts stumped and is at odds with standard procedure: Why were the passengers of the doomed South Korean ferry told to stay in their rooms rather than climb on deck?

Evacuations can be chaotic and dangerous, and an important principle in maritime circles is that even a damaged ship may be the best lifeboat. But car ferries like the Sewol, which left about 300 people missing or dead when it sank Wednesday, are different.

Under certain conditions — like those that confronted the Sewol — car ferries are particularly susceptible to rapid capsizing. This makes it critically important that when there is trouble, the crew quickly evacuate passengers, or at least gather them in preparation to abandon ship.

Though experienced, the captain of the Sewol, Lee Joon-seok, delayed evacuation for at least half an hour after the ship began tipping. Passengers, most of them teenagers on holiday, were initially told to stay below deck.

“If you would have not said a word to them, they would have left to the deck to see what was going on,” and a crucial step in any evacuation would have been accomplished, said Mario Vittone, a former U.S. Coast Guard maritime accident investigator and inspector. “They certainly made it worse than saying nothing at all.”

Lee has worked about four decades at sea, split between ferries and ocean freighters. A representative for his employer, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., told Yonhap News Agency that he has sailed the company’s route from Incheon, near Seoul, to the southern island of Jeju for eight years. A member of his crew, Oh Yong-seok, told The Associated Press that Lee worked on the ferry about 10 days per month.

After his arrest Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, Lee apologized for “causing a disturbance” but defended his decision to wait.

“At the time, the current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without (proper) judgment, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties,” Lee said. “The rescue boats had not arrived yet, nor were there any civilian fishing ships or other boats nearby at that time.”

Vittone and Thad Allen, the former head of the U.S. Coast Guard, said that explanation misses a key point: The captain could have ordered passengers on deck, even if it was not certain that they would have to evacuate the ferry. Allen said in an email that two things needed to be done simultaneously: “Keep trying to save the ship but mitigate the risk to loss of life by preparing the passengers to abandon ship.”

Vittone said in an email that while an evacuation would carry risks, there would be no risk in gathering passengers at “muster stations,” designated areas the crew would identify during a safety demonstration early in the voyage. From these areas, crew members could make sure everyone had life vests on and then direct people to emergency exits.

“He could have always changed his order if the ship wasn’t sinking,” he said. “Worst case

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