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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.
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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.

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