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South Korean Ferry Tragedy Spawned by Twists of Fate

In every disaster, numerous, often unconnected elements combine to create chaos and death. South Korea's worst disaster in decades was no different.

In every disaster, numerous, often unconnected elements combine like atoms smashing together to create chaos and death. South Korea's worst disaster in decades was no different. It was the perfect storm.

Take a faulty ship, load it up beyond its capacity, put it in the hands of a young officer who had never steered it before, take away the captain, add a negligent crew, throw in hundreds of obedient teenagers in a society that rarely questions its elders, add a dash of human confusion and you have the mix that made a tragedy of heartbreaking proportions.

First the ship.

The Sewol had been modified last year with more passenger cabins built. The now top-heavy ship was approved by government inspectors. But the company was advised to carry less cargo, advice prosecutors say the company ignored.

Last week, more than 300 students boarded the ship unaware that port workers had loaded a cargo three times heavier than the maximum recommended. At 3,608 tons, the cargo was more than half the 6,825-ton weight of the ship.

This would prove critical.

Taking her place on the bridge was a 26-year-old third mate who had no experience of steering the ship. The regular captain was off, so a 69-year-old veteran of the route took command. He would be in his cabin when the ship got into trouble.

The students were texting their parents and calling emergency services, trying to make the adults believe that the ship was sinking.

The ship left the port of Incheon nearly two hours late because of fog. If it had sailed on time the work-shift pattern would have ensured an experienced mate was in charge of the ship as it went through a common but treacherous short cut, not an officer who'd never sailed her before.

The steering gear had been reported faulty two weeks earlier. The captain asked for it to be repaired, but prosecutors believe no repairs were carried out. So when the helmsman was asked by the third mate during the fateful, final turn to steer five degrees right, he claimed the ship veered far more than that.

Students and citizens hold candles as they pray for the safe return of missing passengers who were travelling aboard the Sewol South Korean ferry, which sank off the coast of Jindo Island last week.Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

When it did, prosecutors suspect the heavy, overloaded cargo shifted and unbalanced the ship. It never recovered, sinking fast.

Prosecutors now say the shipping company lied about the weight of the cargo on the ship, and they're investigating whether the company also bribed government safety inspectors to give the modified ship the all-clear.

The passengers paid for what prosecutors say was criminal negligence with their lives. Divers began searching the deepest part of the ship on the sea bed Thursday.

When the disaster unfolded, the crew had numerous chances to evacuate the ferry but they did not. Everyone waited for the captain's order to abandon ship but most of the surviving passengers say they heard no such message. The ship's communications officer says he told the passengers to remain on board to keep them calm. And they were. They had their life jackets on and they were texting their parents and calling the emergency services to plead for help and to make adults believe the ship was sinking.

The fifteen senior crew members who control the ship's operation and who are responsible for passenger safety all escaped from the sinking ferry. Most are now behind bars, pending trial. Most of their passengers, most of the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old students, didn't have the time in the end to make their escape and went down with the ship.

In one final twist of fate, the students shouldn't even have been on the Sewol.

The students of Danwon High should have gone back to school Wednesday, exactly a week after the ship sank. Instead hundreds of them, dead and missing, were remembered with white flowers of mourning and a huge memorial.

In one final twist of fate,the students shouldn't even have been on the Sewol. They were booked in its sister ship the Ohamana - that's what their schedule said. But, for reasons unknown, the ships were switched.

Life is full of what-ifs and might-have-beens. Death too.