Korean ferry was overloaded; crew may have broken safety rules

Leaked oil is seen on the surface of the sea near the site where the capsized passenger ship Sewol sank in the sea off Jindo April 20, 2014.

SEOUL - The ill-fated Korean ferry Sewol was overloaded and its crew appears to have broken several other safety guidelines, possibly resulting in its sinking last Wednesday, sources have said.

Divers made multiple trips to the ferry to recover bodies yesterday, in what is one of South Korea's worst disasters in recent memory.

Since late Saturday, rescue workers recovered 29 bodies from inside the ferry and nearby waters off the coast of Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province.

As of 6pm yesterday, the death toll stood at 58, while 244 remained missing.

The 20-year-old vessel was reportedly renovated in 2012, after it was purchased from a Japanese ferry company. Two cabins were added to the back, possibly making it top-heavy, experts claimed.

Though it was not illegal to extend a ship vertically, it could exert greater weight and pressure on the vessel, experts said.

In the Sewol's case, its capacity was increased 14 per cent and is believed to have become 239 tonnes heavier.

"Because the ship was heavier, there is the chance that the crew loaded less ballast water, which is needed to balance the ship," said a Korean Register of Shipping official.

"This may have made the ship unable to recover from the initial tilting."

Park Soo-han, chief executive of shipping parts compnay KCC Corporation, said: "If the top becomes heavier, you need to add more weight to the bottom to make it steady but I don't think that was the case with the Sewol."

Others have suggested that the Sewol load of vehicles and cargo was heavier than what was reported, which could have been a major factor in it sinking.

According to the radio correspondent log, the Sewol reported 450 passengers, 150 vehicles and 657 tonnes of cargo to the Korea Shipping Association.

After the accident, the company revealed the actual numbers were 477 passengers, 124 passenger cars, 22 one-tonne trucks, 34 cargo trucks of more than 2.5-tonne capacity, and 1,157 tonnes of cargo.

The Sewol had a legal capacity of 921 passengers, 180 vehicles and 154 regular cargo containers.

However, heavy trailer drivers carrying more than 30 tonnes of materials each could make freight even heavier.

"Heavy vehicles and their loads weren't examined before they were loaded on the Sewol," a truck driver told reporters.

"Because the Sewol is lax when it comes to overloading, many cargo owners prefer taking the Sewol than to drive all the way to Mokpo in South Jeolla Province and take a ship there."

Sources said that if the heavy cargo were not properly tied down it could have caused the ship to tip over after it titled.

Some people allegedly heard containers fall and roll over.

"If this is true, then the cargo might have upset the weight distribution. It could have accelerated the tipping over process," said Professor Lee Sang-yoon of Pukyung National University.