The sinking of ''Sewol'' () occurred on the morning of 16 April 2014 en route from Incheon to Jeju. The Japanese-built South Korean ferry capsized while carrying 476 people, mostly secondary school students from Danwon High School (Ansan City). The 6,825-ton vessel sent a distress signal from about north off Byeongpungdo at 08:58 Korea Standard Time (23:58 UTC, 15 April 2014). In all, 304 passengers and crew members died in the disaster. Of the approximately 172 survivors, more than half were rescued by fishing boats and other commercial vessels that arrived at the scene approximately 40 minutes after the South Korean coast guard.
The sinking of ''Sewol'' has resulted in widespread social and political reaction within South Korea. Many criticize the actions of the captain and most of the crew of the ferry. More criticize the ferry operator and the regulators who oversaw its operations. Additional criticism has been directed at the South Korean government and media for its disaster response and attempts to downplay government culpability. On 15 May 2014, the captain and three crew members were charged with murder, while the other 11 members of the crew were indicted for abandoning the ship. An arrest warrant was also issued for Yoo Byung-eun, the owner of Chonghaejin Marine, which operated ''Sewol'', but he could not be found despite a nationwide manhunt. On 22 July 2014, police revealed that they had established that a dead man found in a field 415 kilometres south of Seoul was Yoo. Foul play was ruled out, but police say they have yet to establish the cause of Yoo's death.〔
On the first anniversary of the disaster, as part of commemorations for the victims of the sinking of the ''Sewol'', 4,475 people held electronic candles to form the shape of the ferry in an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for largest torchlight image.〔Jin-man, Lee (17 April 2015) (Photo of the Day ) Yahoo! India. 17 April 2015. Retrieved 5 May 2015.〕
At the time Chonghaejin Marine purchased the ship for ($9.8 million) in 2012, the ship that would come to be known as the Motor Vessel (MV) ''Sewol'' was 18 years old and dilapidated. The ship was built in 1994 by Hayashikane Dockyard, who had operated her in Japan for 18 years without a single accident. She was named ''Ferry Naminoue'' during the time of operation and purchase. ''The Korea Herald'' later quoted a shipping expert expressing the opinion that ''Sewol'' should have been scrapped, given that the average lifespan of a ship was 15 years at that time. Soon after the purchase, Chonghaejin made extensive modifications by adding a total of 240 passenger cabins to the third, fourth, and fifth decks. This led to an increase in the passenger capacity from 804 to 921 and an increase in weight by 239 tons, resulting in a left-right imbalance. The ship's Hanja name had a religious connotation and meant to go "beyond the world".〔〔Alternative meanings that have been reported include (time and tide ), which is a mistranslation that goes against the Hanja of the name〕 Investigators later noted that the modifications had been made illegally.
After the modification, ''Sewol'' had a legal capacity of 956 people including the crew, 180 vehicles, and 154 regular cargo containers. She weighed a total of 6,825 tons, and had 46 rubber lifeboats, each with a capacity of 45. She could travel at a maximum of . From October 2012 to February 2013, she was subject to a 5-month testing period by the South Korean Register of Shipping, after which the Register approved the modifications made.〔 However, the Register decreased the authorised cargo capacity by half to 987 tons and required 2,000 tons of water to serve as ballast in order to provide balance. The South Korea government's Audit and Inspection Board later revealed that the Register's licensing was based on falsified documents. Prosecutors later estimated that 1,077 tons of cargo were permissible and that 1,695 tons of ballast was necessary to carry 1,077 tons of cargo.〔
When ''Sewol'' began operating on 15 March 2013, she became the fourth ship operated by the company, and the second to be placed on its route. She made three round trips per week from Incheon to Jeju, each voyage taking 13.5 hours to complete. On February 2014, ''Sewol'' passed a vessel safety inspection by the South Korean coast guard. She had made the round trip a total of 241 times until the day of the incident.〔
On 15 April 2014, ''Sewol'' was scheduled to leave the port at Incheon on 6:30 p.m., Korea Standard Time; instead, she was delayed for two and a half hours due to a thick fog, and was the only ship to leave port that evening, around 9 p.m. When she departed, ''Sewol'' was carrying 476 passengers, which was about half of her legal capacity of 921. 325 of the passengers were students on a field trip from Danwon High School and five passengers did not have a Korean nationality. After the incident, the company reported that she was carrying 124 cars, 56 trucks, and 1157 tons of cargo. The improperly secured cargo weighed twice the legal limit and is estimated to have been worth around .〔
The ship was commanded by 69-year-old Captain Lee Joon-seok, a substitute captain who was brought in as a replacement for the regular captain. He had over 40 years of experience at sea, and had traveled over the route before. He was hired on a one-year contract, with a monthly salary of . Lee was working with 33 crew members for the journey, out of which 19 were irregular, part-time workers.
Later investigations revealed that ''Sewol'' had been issued warnings regarding its seaworthiness. The South Korean Register of Shipping noted in a stability test report dated 24 January 2014 that ''Sewol'' had "became top-heavy and less stable." Throughout the previous year, the regular captain had warned the company about the decrease in stability and passenger satisfaction and attributed it to the removal of the side ramp, but the company responded by threatening to fire him; the last warning and threat was on 9 April 2014, seven days before the incident. The captain had also requested a repair for the malfunctioning steering gear on 1 April 2014, which was not done. Before the last voyage, ''Sewol'' was loaded with 2,142 tons of cargo, twice the authorized limit of 1,077 tons, and 761 tons of ballast, less than half of the required 1,695 tons.〔 The company budget for the safety training of the crew was 2, which was used to buy a paper certificate.
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