Adam Walsh: The heartbreak of the Korean ferry sinking

A vacation to South Korea took a sudden and grim turn when a ferry carrying hundreds of schoolchildren capsized in calm waters, CBC reporter Adam Walsh writes.
People hold candles during a vigil on Friday for the safe return of passengers of the sunken ferry Sewol in Ansan, South Korea. (The Associated Press)

As I write this on Friday morning, the death toll stands at 185 with 117 still missing.

According to reports, divers searching the wreck of the sunken South Korean ferry Sewol just found the bodies of 48 high school girls — all wearing life jackets — in one cabin.

It's a tragedy I'm now following from my desk here in St. John's, but a week and a half ago, I was a whole lot closer.

I was nearing the end of a month-long vacation with my wife, visiting my in-laws in South Korea. I know the country well: I lived there for seven years, until December 2010. 

South Korea coast guard rescuers raced on April 16 to the ferry Sewol, which was traveling to Jeju Island. (Republic of Korea Coast Guard/Getty)
I woke up one morning, and was getting ready to have breakfast when I looked at the TV.

A large ferry on its side was sinking. People with life jackets on were scrambling to get to safety. There were helicopters in the air and rescue boats all around doing whatever they could to get people to safety.

Then, an announcement quoting a teacher. The more than 300 high school students are all right. Rescue operations continue. "Right then," I said to myself. "All is well, crazy rescue shots, but if the kids are OK, let's go run some errands."

Everything was not all right. In fact, some 250 students were soon unaccounted for.

I learned this a little later while I was checking Twitter in a shopping mall. The rescue was not going well and different numbers were flying around about who was rescued and who was not. The many flat-screens around me had eyes glued to them. Those lingering to watch grew into crowds.

At the start of his early morning on the other side of the planet, St. John's Morning Show host Anthony Germain sent me a message asking about the situation. A few back-and-forths later, Anthony asked if I would be comfortable doing a chat about what was happening.

Before I knew it, I was on the air back home, and in short order I was on the job as a journalist. I spent the following 48 hours filing for World Report, News Net, local supperhour news programs and The National.

It's the busiest I have ever been as a journalist. Having brought no gear with me, I filed over Skype from my wife's old bedroom, with her bookshelf as a backdrop.

I've been told it's the biggest story of my career. I know one thing for sure: it's the most heartbreaking.

Capsized in calm waters

The ferry Sewol was on a routine trip to a resort island off Korea's south coast when it went down 20 km off the coast. The 325 students onboard were on a field trip with some teachers and their vice-principal.

A mourner weeps during a tribute on Wednesday to the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol. (Korea Pool/Associated Press)
Most of those students would never go home again.

Quickly after the sinking came blame and anger, and there was good reason. The Sewol, after all, capsized in calm waters.

There were accusations based on witness testimony that the captain and many of the crew abandoned ship while the majority of students were still in their cabins. They are now being criminally investigated.

A video surfaced from the sinking and an announcement could be heard telling passengers to stay in their cabins. It took an hour after the ship began to sink for the evacuation to begin in earnest. Presumably, this was too late for many.

There is every indication that this was a preventable disaster.

Now, as a nation mourns and the world continues to watch, there come calls to look into lax safety enforcement. The charge for far too long has been that economic prosperity has trumped safety in South Korea.

For now, though, the recovery effort continues.

For me, I'm back to work in St. John's, looking from afar ... and haunted by the horror of those final, terrible moments for scores of children who did what they were told, and paid an appalling penalty for their obedience.

About the Author

Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a reporter for the St. John's Morning Show, currently working in Tokyo on a partnership with the Japanese public broadcaster NHK.