Skip to main content

A captain faces 'private hell' in sea disaster

By James Loy
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300. Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300.
HIDE CAPTION
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry sinks
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says ferry tragedy awaits facts on cause
  • He says disturbing early reports from survivors suggest captain, crew mishandled
  • He says a ship captain bears huge responsibility; must be competent, hold trust
  • Loy: Preparation mandatory; Titanic captain a model, went down with ship

Editor's note: James Loy is a retired admiral and former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. He served as deputy secretary of homeland security from 2003 to 2005 and is currently a senior counselor at The Cohen Group, an international business advisory firm.

(CNN) -- I've watched with a mix of solemnity and growing anger the press reports of the gathered family members and officials attending to their respective duties in Jindo, South Korea. Last week a ferry filled with high school students and teachers sank in the frigid waters off the southwest coast there; at this writing, nearly 90 people are confirmed dead and more than 200 are still missing.

The family members reflect the extraordinary pain of losing loved ones as the hopes for additional survivors dim to nil, the tragedy somehow multiplied by the promise of lives just begun snuffed out at such early ages.

James Loy
James Loy

As a retired Coast Guard officer with four tours as a commanding officer at sea, I am riveted by such stories as the loss of the ferry Sewol. Ongoing and certainly subsequent investigations will reveal the facts about the series of decisions that resulted in the sinking and its aftermath.

At this point, news reports about the behavior and competence of the captain, Lee Joon-seok, and the crew are disturbing, to say the least. Survivor accounts suggest -- among other things -- mixed orders, a serious lack of safety drills and training, and a captain who may have abandoned ship before his responsibility to those entrusted to his care was met.

Lee is facing criminal charges, including abandoning his ship, negligence, causing bodily injury and not seeking rescue from other ships.

The responsibility of a ship's captain at sea is inescapable. He or she is entrusted with the safe navigation and the safe passage of the ship and its crew, passengers and cargo. It is absolute and irrevocable. The job mandates the preparation necessary to cope with any eventuality encountered during that passage. It's about competence, training and ensured trust and leadership -- especially when circumstances unfold that jeopardize the well-being of those in your hands.

Ferry Captain: From poster boy to pariah
See timeline for sunken ferry
Four more ferry crew members arrested
Children's bodies recovered from ferry

Such incidents recall Capt. Edward John Smith. The Titanic's captain had a sterling history of command at sea behind him before he sailed from Southampton on April 10, 1912. He had gained a reputation for quiet competence before he became the commodore of the White Star fleet and had commanded many other ships on their maiden voyages.

All that preparation was dashed two days later in the ice floes of the North Atlantic when he had to give the order to abandon ship, but appeared to make no attempt to save himself. He went down with the ship.

South Korean President: Actions of captain 'akin to murder'

A collision or grounding or fire at sea is the immediate private hell on earth for a ship's captain and crew. Their actions must be based on their preparation. Questions will be properly asked regarding the training regimen and the individual professionalism of all the members of the crew, from the captain to the newest sailor on board.

Hopefully lessons will be shared with the seagoing community to help make sure such a tragedy does not happen again.

There is an old aphorism that says "A crisis is not the time to exchange business cards!" This terrible incident reminds us all that preparation and attention to detail will always serve us well, but that they are both absolutely mandatory when men and women go down to the sea in ships.

Safe navigation. Safe passage. The extraordinary independence of a ship's captain at sea brings ultimate responsibility for both.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT