Passivity, hesitancy cast doubt on unit's raison d'etre
Despite the nationwide grief and self-rebuking, the biggest targets of popular criticism are the captain and a dozen other crew members of the sunken ferry Sewol. Coming next should be the Coast Guard, according to video clips which show the initial stages of the nation's worst maritime disaster in two decades.
It was 9:30 a.m. on April 16 when the Coast Guard arrived at the scene, and a student trapped in a cabin sent a final message at 10:17. One can't help but wonder what the officers did during those vital 47 minutes. Did they attempt to break into the sinking vessel? No. They didn't even get as close as possible to the ferry. What they did was just wait and focus on those who dared to jump into the sea.
Did they make an announcement for the passengers to abandon ship? They might have done so, but chances are high those in the cabin would not have heard the message because of helicopters roaring above the vessel. The Coast Guard should have made an announcement inside the ferry, not outside of it.
The Coast Guard has said that they could not mount the ship but video footage shows an officer struggling to detach a lifeboat from the ferry, meaning they could approach the ferry ― if they had tried hard enough.
They did save people ― the captain and the crew. It is an ABC of maritime rescue that the crew should be the last to leave the ship not only for moral but for realistic reasons too: they should help the relief squad, mainly by informing them of the structure of the vessel. The Coast Guard should have told the crew to go back to the ship, as was the case of Italian rescuers years ago. Again, the officers said they could not tell passengers from the crew, but the latter would have been recognizable due to their clothing.
In short, the maritime police arrived too late, and did too little even after getting there, wasting the so-called golden time of the first 30 minutes.
We are lost for words after hearing that an officer reported that the Sewol was sinking to the Mokpo Coast Guard by means of a "ax" instead of using a telephone. More surprisingly, when the Mokpo office received an SOS call from a student, it asked him to provide the "latitude and longitude" of the location. When popular sentiments grew worse in the face of faltering rescue efforts, a Coast Guard executive stunned people by saying, "We did our best. Rescuing 80 people is no small feat." The other 94 people were saved by fishermen on vessels smaller and older than those of the Coast Guard.
Once the search operation comes to a close, the first thing the government should do is make a vast and meticulous report on who did what (wrong) with respect to this tragic incident, not omitting even a single and minor mistake or misdeed. What matters is not a lack of manuals or agencies but those of training and experts.
President Park Geun-hye put the cart before the horse Tuesday. Setting up another government agency in charge of security affairs can wait. A thorough and correct diagnosis should precede any remedies.