Researched and written by
Det. Superintendent George Rose CPM (retired)
This is a story about the investigation surrounding the death in March, 1977 of a Korean fisherman on the high seas east of Bermuda followed by the verdict of a Bermuda Coroner’s inquest concerning his death.
It is useful at this juncture to describe for historical context a short narrative regarding foreign fishing vessels plying in Bermuda waters. Since 1970 local fishermen had long decried the presence of Korean and nationalist Chinese fishing fleets who found nearby Bermuda mounts to be lucrative tuna fishing grounds. There were numerous sightings of foreign trawlers off Bermuda including Koreans, Russians, and less frequently, the Italians. The Japanese were frequent visitors into Dockyard in early 1971 as they refueled and picked up provisions and fresh water.
Said Danny Farias president of the Bermuda Commercial Fisherman’s Association, “The Japs, and the Formosans’ and the Chinese all know this – they all fish up here.”
During the early 1970’s a regular sight in St. George’s was the presence of South Korean and Taiwanese fishing trawlers lying abreast at Penno’s Wharf as part of a much larger fishing fleet then operating in the mid-Atlantic.
Whilst Japanese and South Korean fleets continued fishing within 90 miles of Bermuda during the winter months, government studies were actively underway into how Bermuda could best police the plans afoot to extend Bermuda’s fishing rights to 200 miles – to give the island jurisdiction over roughly 176,000 square miles of the Atlantic.
In 1974 the Government of South Korea decided that in order to diversify and improve their own country’s economy they would go into fishing in a big way. An offer to Bermuda to co-operate was taken up by a local legislative committee which was followed by a Law of the Sea Conference in late 1974 in Caracas, Venezuela.
Moving on, in January, 1977 a “request for a proclamation to extend and secure Bermuda’s fishing rights from 12 to 200 miles” was submitted to the UK Government in order to establish a legal claim at the international level. The establishment of such a 200-mile exclusive fishing zone would swell Bermuda’s fishing rights zone from the then 453 square miles to 125,836 square miles.
In mid-February, 1977 two trawlers of, by now, one of the world’s leading fishing nations, South Korea, were among a record nine fishing boats from Japan and Italy which were berthed at the East End engaged in the transfer of fish, changes of crew and bunkers and for medical supplies. This was reported to be the largest number of fishing vessels to have ever berthed at St. George’s at any one time.
REPORT OF A DEAD KOREAN SEAMAN
On the morning of Monday 28th March, 1977 Captain John Moore of Myer Agencies, St. George’s, informed the St. George’s police that a Korean fishing boat, “Indian No.12” was due to arrive at St. George’s the following day carrying the body of a dead seaman by the name of Jung Ho SOO. It was Captain Moore’s information that the crewmember had died at about 2.30 a.m. on Saturday 26th March, 1977, when the boat was located about 240 miles due East of Bermuda.
At 8.20 a.m. on Tuesday, 29th March, 1977 Constable 299 Terence Allebone attended Penno’s Wharf as the Korean fishing trawler “Indian No.12” berthed alongside another Korean vessel already at the dock. Constable Allebone boarded the boat and met with the captain but found that he was unable to properly converse in English. At this time there was no interpreter available.
The deck of the ship “Indian No. 12” looking from the bridge
The same ship looking from the foredeck towards the bridge
Said Constable Allebone:
“I indicated to the captain that I wished to see the body, and I saw it removed from a fish storage freezer on deck. The body, which was that of a fully clothed oriental male, was placed inside a large wooden box. I was not able to make any kind of examination as the clothes were frozen to the body.”
It was ascertained that the “Indian No.12” carried no medical doctor aboard.
Arrangements were made through the ships agent for the removal of the body by a local funeral director to the mortuary at the King Edward Memorial Hospital (KEMH).
IDENTIFICATION OF BODY
Continuing his enquiries and now in company with Captain TAE and interpreter Mr. John Lee, PC Allebone attended the mortuary around lunchtime that same Tuesday when the captain formally identified the body of the deceased to pathologist Dr. Thomas Cooper.
Constable Terence "Terry" Allebone
As the Officer in Charge of Eastern CID, on the morning of Wednesday, 30th March I met with Detective Superintendent Sheehy and discussed matters relating to this apparent sudden death on board the Korean trawler now within our jurisdiction.
The following facts were reviewed:
1. The sudden death is alleged to have occurred on the high seas;
2. The victim involved was a non-Bermudian;
3. The trawler was NOT registered in Bermuda;
4. Because the body had been brought within Bermuda’s jurisdiction it was well defined Maritime law that Bermuda HAD jurisdiction in the matter of the death of Mr. SOO.
An additional consideration of some considerable importance arose in that if any criminal proceedings should arise following a Bermuda police investigation as to the circumstances of the death, then Bermuda would have NO jurisdiction to pursue the matter in the local courts.
It was agreed that a CID overview would be undertaken with a view to determining whether or not there was any reason to believe, or evidence of, foul play having occurred in the high-seas death of Jung Ho SOO. It was clear that a Coroner’s Inquest was required and Dr. Cooper was formally requested to perform a post mortem examination of the body.
At 1.30 p.m. the same day, working in company with Constable Allebone, I commenced an investigation extending into the evening. With the assistance of interpreter Mr. Lee, we interviewed Captain TAE and four crew members, and recorded witness statements from all five men.
Police photographer Detective Constable Phillip Bermingham visited the berthed trawler and recorded five selected views on board. He later recorded the photo of an injury to the head of another fisherman, O Sung YOUNG who was similarly hurt on the vessel at the time of the incident, together with two photos taken during the post mortem of the injury to the head and brain of the deceased.
THE LOG BOOK
The boat’s log book was examined by Mr. Lee, the interpreter, but it only gave details of location, weather and quantities of fish caught. It showed that due to very bad weather, not very much fishing had been possible during that week. [Interestingly, there was no record to be found in the log book of the death of the deceased SOO, or of the circumstances leading up to the injuries sustained by crew member YOUNG].
DECEASED’S MOVEMENTS PRIOR TO DEATH
There follows a précis of the information supplied during interviews with the captain and four crew members present with the deceased immediately prior to his injury and subsequent death. Statements were recorded from all five which were presented as evidence before the Coroner’s jury on Friday, April 1st, 1977.
In his statement, injured crew member O Sung YOUNG said that when the wave hit the boat he was knocked over the refrigerator cover and ended up beneath a work bench. He said he suffered a jagged head injury which he later showed to the jury.
About 10.30 a.m. on Friday 25th March, 1977 the deceased, SOO, went to the forward deck and stood with two other men. The weather was very windy and the sea was very rough with heavy confused wave action. Due to the sea and weather, fishing was not possible. SOO was advised by a colleague, Kang Moon Soo that he should stay below due to the poor conditions. However, the deceased insisted on staying on deck.
About this time the boat pitched, and a large wave washed over the forward deck. The three men were all knocked off their feet by the force of the wave. One man, O Sung YOUNG was knocked across the top of one of the hatches and ended up beneath a work bench. He sustained a bad laceration to the right rear of his scalp.
The injury to the right rear of the head
as suffered by O Sung YOUNG
The deceased was seen to fall to the deck and be washed towards the stern by the water. Kang Moon Soo went to the assistance of the deceased and helped him to stand. After a few minutes of rest, they both went below to the mess area. The deceased’s wet clothing was removed for him as he was unable to do this himself. He then lay down to rest, and did not eat with the others.
A statement recorded from Captain Choy Bok TAE revealed that Mr. SOO had complained of stomach pains and head pains in the early hours of Saturday, March 26th. The captain said he had given the sick man some medicine and later an injection “because he was no better”. Mr. SOO died shortly thereafter.
PHYSICAL CONDITION OF DECEASED PRIOR TO DEATH
About 6.00 p.m. that Friday night the deceased was sitting in the mess when he was asked by Park Suk YILL to help him with some work. At this time, the deceased put his head on the table and said, “No, I’ve got a headache.”
At 9.00 p.m. the deceased vomited. Some crew members helped him onto a table, cleaned him up, and then put him back to bed. He complained of a headache and stomach ache and was given some medicine.
At about 1.00 a.m. the following Saturday morning, the captain instructed a crew member to feed the deceased some canned food.
About 2.15 a.m. the captain visited SOO who appeared to have difficulty breathing. He was given an injection followed by mouth to mouth resuscitation.
About 2.30 a.m. the captain said he noticed that SOO “Had the eyes of a dead man.” He decided that SOO was dead and he arranged for the preservation of the body.
Jung Ho SOO, a Korean national, born on 12th May, 1950, was employed as an ‘oiler’ in the engine room aboard Indian No.12. Whilst the boat was engaged in fishing, he would also work on the forward deck where fish were cleaned.
The steps leading from the deck into the engine room
The engine room looking towards the steps
The deceased was said to earn approximately US$300 per month, but this varied according to the size of the catch. He did not receive wages each month as it was the custom of the company to forward each man’s money to his family in Korea. However, when the boat came into port, each man was given a small spending allowance.
Prior to joining the boat on 6th September, 1976, the deceased had been employed in Korea affixing neon signs to high buildings. He had to cease this work as he suffered from dizziness at height.
Captain TAE said that since working on Indian No.12, it had come to his attention that the deceased had fallen down quite frequently during the course of his duties on the boat, and that he was not a strong man. Because of this the captain had instructed the deceased that when the sea was rough, he was not to work on deck, but was to sit on the deck at one side.
THE BOAT (The Scene)
Indian No.12 was a fishing boat owned by the Indian Ocean Fishery Co. Ltd., of Philipsburg, Sint Maarten, West Indies. It was 38 meters in length and weighed about 250 tons. The crew consisted of 22 Koreans who were employed on the boat on three year contracts.
Living conditions on board were seen to be very cramped with the combined mess room and sleeping area measuring approximately 20ft x 8ft, and situated at the stern. The bunks were arranged in tiers along the port and starboard sides. The two tables with bench seats were placed across the centre of the mess area. The engine room where the deceased had worked was forward of the mess area.
The sleeping quarters and dining table
The forward deck was an open area where the fish were prepared. Three raised hatches and a work bench on the forward section of the deck were examined. The hatches stood about three feet in height and were made of wood with metal fittings.
The Royal Gazette dated Saturday, April 2nd, 1977 reported (in part) on details revealed at the Coroner’s inquest held on Friday, April 1st.
ROUGH WEATHER INJURIES CAUSE FISHERMAN’S DEATH
“A 26-year old Korean fisherman died at sea about 240 miles east of Bermuda from injuries he suffered during rough weather, an inquest jury decided on Friday, April 1st, 1977. The jury’s verdict recorded that no-one was criminally responsible for the death of Jung Ho SOO who died on March 26th on board the Korean fishing vessel, Indian No.12.
“The Coroner was the Senior Magistrate Wor. Richard Hector. Mr. John Lee acted as interpreter.
“During the proceedings, with Captain TAE in the witness box, Mr. Hector asked him what sort of medicine he had given the deceased. Captain TAE said it was a Japanese drug like Alka Seltzer. He said he did not know what was in the injection, but he had learned about medicine at the Korean merchant navy academy “because you needed that training to be a captain.”
“Det. Sgt. George Rose read a statement he had recorded from another crew member, Mr. Kang Moon Soo. It said that on the morning of March 25th he was on the lower wooden deck area of the ship and the weather was so bad that there was no fishing. He said he told Mr. Jung Ho SOO not to come up onto the deck because it was so rough, but he did go up.
“Kang Moon Soo said a big wave came over the vessel and knocked him down and afterwards he saw Jung Ho SOO lying on the ground – the water had washed him down to the back of the boat.
“Kang Moon Soo said he helped the other man up and took him below deck and told him to have a rest. He said that Jung Ho SOO didn’t say anything about being injured.
“Kang Moon Soo said he was later awakened to find the deceased vomiting. He said the sick man was given medicine before he died.”
CAUSE OF DEATH
“Dr. Thomas Cooper, a pathologist at the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, said he examined the body of Mr. SOO and it was that of a small slightly built man. He said the cause of death was cardio respiratory failure, associated with cerebral compression, associated with subdural haematoma and fractures of the skull. He said the injuries were probably caused by striking a flat or blunt surface.
“Dr. Cooper said there were no [additional] external injuries to Mr. SOO, “but while you would normally find them, it was not invariably so.” He said Mr. SOO’s height and slight build could well explain the injuries he suffered compared with those of Mr. Young.
“Pc Terence Allebone told the jury that he had investigated the circumstances leading to the death of Jung Ho SOO with a view to determining how and when SOO received the head injury leading to his death. He had learned that Mr. SOO was not a strong man and suffered from dizziness and had been told not to stand on the deck when the weather was bad. He said that he was satisfied the other fishermen had comforted Mr. SOO as best they could before he died.”
RESULTS OF INVESTIGATION
“Constable Allebone said that on the basis of all the information supplied to him by Captain TAE and the witnessing crew members, and in the absence of any known motives to the contrary, there is good reason to believe that SOO’s death had resulted from a severe impact injury on board the ship during severe weather conditions at sea.
Mr. Hector said there was no indication of foul play in the evidence the jury had heard and that it would seem there was bad weather and crewmen were injured.
[On May 20, 1977 the Acting Governor, Mr. G. Peter Lloyd, on behalf of the United Kingdom, officially extended Bermuda’s exclusive fishing zone by way of a proclamation in the Royal Gazette.
In November 1977, having first gained permits from Bermuda ahead of their visit, a fleet of South Korean fishing vessels was expected to be the first to test the new fishing zone between December, 1977 and April, 1978]
The presence of these trawlers in the Olde Towne during the 1970’s evoked memories from now senior St. Georgian sources I interviewed for this article. Here are a few quotes from "reliable sources":-
1) “I remember those boats alongside and the shark fins strung between the masts. When the wind was in the right quarter they stunk out the whole town. You could smell ‘em a mile away.”
2) “As kids we used to trade a Playboy magazine for a whole fish.”
3) “It was said that many of these crews were on the run from authorities in their own country. They were wanted men who were glad to be out of sight of authorities for 3 or 4 months at a time.”
4) “I remember the crew did a little farewell dancing ceremony around the frozen body as it was taken off the vessel onto the dock on its way to the mortuary.”
5) “The Koreans wore flip-flop sandals made of wood with a cloth strap over the top. They kept to themselves sitting along the docks’ – which was alright because of the smell. I didn’t want to move too close to the dock. Mostly, they didn’t speak English and rarely moved about the Town - but they’d always smile and wave when we went down to the wharf.”
6) “It was the job of the duty Customs and Boarding Officer in St. George’s in the late 1970’s to go out on the pilot boat, meet and board the trawlers’ and process the crew members for landing during the journey in. Mostly, there was always one officer on board, usually the captain or the radio officer, who knew a smattering of English and could supply the required documentation.”
7) “Their short stay in Bermuda and the language barrier posed obvious problems but a captain had to know a little English to get his foreign fisherman’s licence. They all had passports but the crewmembers didn’t speak English.”
8) “Sharks were caught all the time when longline fishing for tuna and were treated as ‘bycatch’ with only the valuable fins kept for Asian dishes. There was big money in the fins. Most times the shark meat was used as bait for longlining.”
9) “I remember seeing the dead crewman in the iced fish hold with a 3 or 4 foot tuna lying across his chest. Many of the crew were injured in some way or another because of the enraged seas.”
10) “Peeling paint and very smelly they sailed in right under the noses of Bermuda fishermen who were growing up a stink about what they claim was exploitation of the rich fish harvest of the Argus and Challenger Banks.”
See the following link for a glimpse into the squalid living conditions for South Korean fishermen at sea on a ship of horrors: life and death on the lawless seas.