Why Do So Many People Die in Ferry Accidents?

Nearly 300 people are feared missing after a huge ferry capsized and sank off South Korea's southwestern coast. Carrying a group of high school students on a field trip from a high school outside Seoul, the ship was en route to Jeju, a Korean resort island known as the country's "Hawaii." Scores of rescue divers have descended on the ship, and it is feared that the death toll will rise sharply in coming days. Survivors say many people remain trapped on the ship's lower decks; 462 people were on board the ship, 281 of whom remain unaccounted for.

Somewhere between 800 and 1,000 people are thought to die in ferry accidents every year, according to Roberta Weisbrod, the executive director of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association. While ferries in the developed world are by and large very safe, ferry safety is a serious problem in the developing world, Weisbrod said. But the true extent of the problem remains something of a mystery: The actual annual death toll from ferry disasters could be twice the current estimate, she says.

While ferry accidents such as Wednesday's catastrophe are uncommon in Korea -- its last such disaster came two decades ago -- they happen more often elsewhere in Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The Philippines and Indonesia are composed of extensive archipelagos; Bangladesh is a riverine country. As a result, water transport is a fact of daily life. What has been described as the world's worst peacetime maritime tragedy occurred in the Philippines in 1987 when the Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker and as many as 4,000 people lost their lives.

Ferries in developing countries are often old vessels, sometimes repurposed to operate in waterways for which they weren't designed. In Tanzania, for example, ferries from the calm waters of Washington state's Puget Sound were put to sea in the rough waters of the Indian Ocean, Weisbrod said.

Ferries in the developing world are often overcrowded, which can throw off a boat's balance or make it top heavy and more prone to capsizing. And when crewmembers are inadequately trained they are uncertain of how to respond in the event of a disaster, exacerbating these problems. Moreover, government safety regulations are far less stringent -- or go unenforced -- in developing nations.

While it's difficult to draw a common thread through different ferry accidents, Weisbrod says extreme or unexpected weather events typically precede a catastrophic ferry accident. Indeed, in Wednesday's capsizing and sinking of South Korean ferry, local media reported that the ship may have hit rocks in heavy fog. "The boat suddenly stopped after a big thumping sound from the frontal part of the ship," one passenger told a local TV station.

Weisbrod says there is some reason for optimism in improving ferry safety in the developing world. Together with the International Maritime Organization, Interferry, a group representing the global ferry industry, has launched an initiative to drastically reduce fatalities. So far, they've brought together safety officials to share best practices and have launched a competition to design safer vessels.

Of course, many of the factors that make ferry accidents routine in parts of the developing world were not at play in the case of the Sewol. The ship wasn't overcrowded, and there is, at least at this stage, little reason to doubt the seaworthiness of the vessel.

That only serves to magnify the horror of the disaster. "It's a betrayal of a wonderful way of traveling -- so many helpless people," Weisbrod said.

Photo by The Republic of Korea Coast Guard via Getty Images


Ukraine Makes Good on Threats to Pounce on Russian Protesters

Over the past three days, officials in Kiev have fumed as pro-Russian activists seized government buildings in several eastern Ukrainian cities. They vowed to strike back, issued ultimatums for the activists to depart the buildings, and then let those deadlines lapse. On Tuesday, Kiev finally delivered on its threats.

Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov announced that his armed forces had launched an “anti-terrorist” operation against activists and gunmen who have seized government buildings and an airport. On cue, Ukrainian forces rolled east. And as has been the case throughout the Ukrainian protest -- from the revolts on the Maidan to the chaos in Crimea -- the whole thing played out on YouTube.

In one of the more dramatic scenes of the day, video emerged of a group of men attempting to stop a Ukrainian tank outside Sloviansk. It’s exactly as crazy as it sounds:

Near Donetsk, a similar scene played out when a Ukrainian military convoy tried to make progress on a road crowded with onlookers.

Here, near Sloviansk, Ukrainian troops received a warmer welcome:

Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces happily talked to the media while posing in front of their armored personnel carriers. Here, a soldier talks to RT near Izium, where Ukrainian forces appear to have staged before launching an assault on the airport near Kramatorsk, which had been seized by pro-Russian forces.

A fighter jet, by all appearances an Su-30, could also be seen in the area:

While conflicting reports emerged from Kramatorsk, Ukrainian forces appeared to have gained control of the airbase. Ukrainian forces said they clashed with some 30 gunmen at the small base, but reports of casualties were conflicting. The Ukrainian government claimed there were none, while Russian media claimed that between four and 11 had been killed in the operation. By evening a large, angry separatist crowd had gathered outside the base. Many of them are reportedly quite drunk and are swearing at the Ukrainian soldiers who now control the base.

With Ukrainian forces having mobilized, Tuesday's events represented an escalation of the crisis in eastern Ukraine. According to Yulia Tymoshenko, the country's former prime minister and candidate for president, the country is already at war with Russia. "We have to tell the Ukrainians the truth: the Russian Federation is waging a real war against Ukraine in the east, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in particular," she said Tuesday.

U.S. officials have claimed that Russia has deployed agents in Ukraine's east to provoke unrest and provide a pretense for Russian forces massed on Ukraine's border to invade. Speaking in Beijing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned Kiev's attempt to calm unrest. "You can't send in tanks and at the same time hold talks. The use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva," he said, referring to talks between Russia, the United States, the EU, and Ukraine, that are scheduled for Thursday.

Should Russian forces cross the Ukrainian border, there are several possible scenarios that could play out. They could claim a limited swath of territory in the south and east, opening a land corridor to Crimea or attempt a broader land grab and seize large portions of the country east of the Dnieper.

According to Igor Sutyagin, a fellow at Royal United Services Institute who has written about the Russian military's plans in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin probably has not decided on a course of action. "Putin is a tactician. He does not know what he will do," Sutyagin said in an interview. "Many want to believe that Putin has some sort of plan. The problem is that he does not, and that is even more dangerous. The problem is that he reacts to opportunities that he very often gets wrong."