Prosecutors Seek Death Sentence for Captain in Tragic Ship Accident

 In cargo, shipping news

Sewol - Captain Faces Death PenaltyThere’s an old idiom, “The captain goes down with the ship,” that refers to the maritime tradition that a sea captain is responsible for his or her ship and everyone, the passengers and crew, onboard.

Usually, when a ship is in distress, the captain forgoes his own safety and evacuation of the ship and concentrates on saving everyone else on board. The results have often been the death or a late rescue of the captain.

This was not the case onboard the MV Sewol.

Today’s blog is not a happy shipping news story. The below video shows footage of Captain Lee Joon-seok in his underwear scrambling to get off the ship with the help of rescuers. Meanwhile, hundreds of passengers were drowning.

In fact, according to survivors, passengers were ordered to stay in their rooms. Instead of using the life vests, rafts, and announcements to evacuate the passengers, the captain and crew abandoned them and the ship. The results were that nearly 300 people died. Many of the passengers were high school students on a field trip.


The above footage enraged the people of South Korea as it was played over and over again on the news, creating a public outcry for the death sentence to be used on the captain. We blogged about that back in June of this year:

Captain Could Be Executed On Murder Charges After Tragic Ship Sinking

Now it’s more than just public opinion calling for the death sentence. Prosecutors asked the court to sentence Captain Lee Joon-seok to death.

According to CNN, “The closing statement was held Monday, and the three judges are expected to issue a verdict and sentencing on November 11.”

No one has been executed in South Korea since 1997. There are some who think executing the captain in this case would be a huge case of scapegoating.

HandyShippingGuide.com posted an article on this story which included a view against taking Captain Lee Joon-seok’s life:

Nautilus General Secretary Mark Dickinson said he was deeply disturbed to hear of the drastic sentences being sought by prosecutors saying:

“From the outset, there has been a concerted drive to criminalise the captain and crew in this incident, and these extreme penalties take the practice of scapegoating seafarers to an unprecedented level. It has become clear since the tragic loss of the Sewol that, as with many other maritime disasters, the causes are complex and it is totally unjust to single out seafarers for such treatment.

“Issues including training, experience, safety management, ship design and construction, and the effectiveness of the regulatory regime are all critical factors in this disaster. It is all-too easy for the South Korean authorities to pin the blame on the captain and crew, while ignoring deep-rooted underlying problems and the rush to this kind of kneejerk justice does no one any favours.

“This disturbing situation is indicative of a regulatory process that has little regard for fair treatment of seafarers and no desire to really understand what happened and thus learn the necessary lessons to improve safety. There is a need for change now, there is an ineffective accident investigation process and an urgent need for a renewed push to improve ferry safety.”

There is certainly plenty of blame to go around, as Mr. Dickinson says above. Overloading the boat with cargo, something the ferry company allegedly tried to cover up with falsified documents, could be added to Mr. Dickinson’s list.

While changes certainly need to be made for improved ferry safety in South Korea as Mr. Dickinson suggests, were the actions of the captain and crew not criminal?

Even if the captain and crew did not have the proper training, wouldn’t common sense suggest evacuating? To instead order passengers to stay in their rooms while the captain and crew got out themselves seems to be knowingly saving themselves at the cost of the lives of the passengers.

The question is, should those actions be punished with the death penalty? What do you think?

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