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Sewol operator logged most accidents over 5 years

2014/05/07 16:31

INCHEON, May 7 (Yonhap) -- The operator of the ill-fated ferry Sewol registered the largest number of accidents among the country's passenger ship companies over the past five years, government data showed Wednesday.

Despite the poor record, Chonghaejin Marine Co. was spared punitive measures, but rather cited as one of the best ferry operators in the country last year. Chonghaejin owns the 6,825-ton ferry that sank off the southwest coast last month, leaving more than 300 people dead or missing.

According to the data compiled by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, four passenger boats run by Chonghaejin were involved in a total of six accidents between 2009 and 2013, or about 10 percent of the 59 accidents reported during the period.

The data was made public by Rep. Kim Choon-jin of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy.

Chonghaejin officials as well as its owner family have been under investigation over the deadly sinking of the ferry Sewol on April 16 off South Korea's southwestern island of Jindo. Of the 476 people on board, 269 have been confirmed dead, with 33 remaining unaccounted for.

Three weeks before the Sewol's sinking, one of its boats, the Democracy No. 5, collided with a fishing boat in waters off the western port city of Incheon. No casualties were reported among the 141 passengers on board. Investigators said the operator had gone ahead with the voyage despite thick fog.

In 2009, the Democracy No. 5 went adrift for nearly 12 hours due to engine failure. It had been carrying 358 people at the time.

In 2011, a power failure caused a 6,322-ton ship, named Ohamana, to stop in the middle of the sea in 2011. After undergoing emergency repair work, the ship with 622 passengers managed to return to Incheon.

Despite its track record, Chonghaejin was one of 18 out of 56 ferry operators in the country most highly rated by customers in a survey by the maritime affairs ministry.

Chonghaejin's vessels including Sewol and Ohamana were also all graded as "middle-class" ships in terms of their operations and services, the ministry data showed.

Investigators, meanwhile, said they are looking into what prompted Chonghaejin to try to sell the Sewol a month before the accident took place, along with its twin ship, the Ohamana.

A joint investigation team of police and the prosecution has been investigating officials of Chonghaejin Marine Co., and other relevant officials to determine why they put the Sewol and Ohamana on sale in March at the same time via online agencies.

The operator was offering to sell the Sewol for US$16 million and the Ohamana for US$7.5 million. An unidentified buyer from the Philippines expressed an interest in the sale, according to the investigators.

"We are looking into suspicions that the management tried to hurriedly sell the two ships upon learning that the old ships had serious problems in maintaining stability," an official said.

In 2012, the firm bought the Japanese-built Sewol and changed its structure to carry more passengers and cargo.

While investigations are under way into what caused the tragedy last month, officials say overloading of cargo and its structural changes could have destabilize the vessel built in 1995.

After buying the Ohamana in 2003, Chonghaejin had planned to sell the vessel. The Ohamana was made in 1989.

graceoh@yna.co.kr

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