Almost 300 people are missing off the coast of South Korea after a ferry there, carrying mostly schoolchildren, capsized and sank. About 164 people have been pulled from the wreckage, and the race to find survivors is well underway.
No one ever expects a disaster, but this one has especially stunned people. Passengers say they heard a loud thud, which suggests the vessel collided with something, but it’s too early to tell. “This particular ferry was built in Japan, who make some of the best ships in the world. It wasn’t anywhere near full and it was travelling a well-worn route in reasonably calm seas,” the BBC’s Richard Westcott explains. “The speed with which it flipped over and sank is a major concern.”
So if conditions were near-perfect for a smooth journey, what happened? And could the same happen in U.S. waters?
The American ferry industry, which carries tens of millions of people each year, has a good safety record. It’s also heavily regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard and state governmental agencies, from vessel design and construction to repair and inspection. In a typical year, private ferry-related deaths are in the single digits, according to the Passenger Vessel Association.
Still, some are worried about ferry infrastructure. An anonymous captain for the Staten Island Ferry recently told the New York Post that the eight boats that carry 60 million people to and from Manhattan are “ill-designed, poorly maintained safety hazards.”
“I don’t understand how the Coast Guard allows these boats to go out sometimes,” he continued. “They really do put people at risk. If this were a private company, the Coast Guard would be all over them.”
In 2010, a ferryboat carrying 244 people crashed into the St. George Terminal on Staten Island after an electrical malfunction took out its propellers, injuring 50 passengers.
The Coast Guard rebuked the unnamed captain’s claims. The Staten Island Ferry’s operator, New York City’s Department of Transportation, “has been recognized as having an aggressive, pro-active safety program,” the agency said. The Coast Guard conducts safety inspections of the ferry four times a year.
The bleak reality, however, is that no number of inspections can ever prevent maritime accidents, in South Korea or in the U.S., especially when external factors are involved. “It doesn’t matter how well built the ship is,” BBC’s Westcott writes, “collisions can sink vessels very quickly.”