When I woke up today, my husband was watching the news about the sinking of a ferry in South Korea, a tragedy that has brought sorrow all over the nation. It has been four days since the 6,825-ton vessel, Sewol, capsized off Korea’s southwest coast, but rescuers are yet to find hundreds of passengers still unaccounted for, and more and more families receive devastating news as names of victims confirmed dead are announced each day. What makes the news more heartbreaking is that 325 of the 476 passengers aboard the ferry are high school students headed to Jeju Island for a field trip.
Only 179 passengers have been rescued–some of them students, some teachers and crew members–but the search for at least 271 people continues and the chances of finding them alive seem bleak. Since Wednesday, the coast guard and navy divers have found no survivors. On Thursday, bodies were floating in the water where the ferry overturned. Later, three bodies were discovered inside a cabin where a number of students were presumed trapped, but divers were unable to recover them. As of today, the death toll has reached 32.
Families of the missing have crowded in a gymnasium in the port city of Jindo waiting for news of their loved ones. Divers are exhausting all efforts to penetrate the ferry, but the rain, underwater poor visibility and strong currents make the task almost impossible. To the grieving parents, the rescue team and the government are not doing enough. Some angry parents voiced their frustration to government officials who have come to talk to them. One parent threw a bottle of water at the Prime Minister; another slapped a government official. A female correspondent who was reporting the incident was also lambasted. “Lies,” a parent shouted, “The reports are all lies!”
VILLAINS AND HEROES
The 69 year-old veteran captain, together with two crew members, were arrested this morning and are facing charges for negligence of duty and violation of maritime law. Captain Lee Joon-seok was criticized for not piloting the ship when it capsized and for abandoning the passengers after telling them to stay where they were. The victims’ families and the authorities believe that if the passengers were evacuated, more lives could have been saved. An official at the Jeju Vessel Traffic Services Center recommended evacuation five minutes after the ferry’s distress call, but it took 30 minutes for the captain to order passengers to evacuate. According to him, he had given instructions regarding the route before leaving the wheel for a while. As for delaying evacuation order, this is what he had to say:
“The current was very strong, the temperature of the ocean water was cold, and I thought that if people left the ferry without proper judgement, if they were not wearing a life jacket, and even if they were, they would drift away and face many other difficulties.”
While the captain and some of his crew members were in a haste to abandon the ship, some of the passengers were sacrificing their own lives to save others. A 22-year-old crew member, Park Ji Young, made sure that all passengers on the third and fourth floors of the ship wore life jackets though she wasn’t wearing one. Even when the water rose to her chest, she didn’t let herself be overcome by panic. She pushed the bewildered passengers towards the exit, so they could escape. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it out of the ship alive.
A 17-year-old student, Jeong Cha Woong, gave his life vest to his drowning friend and jumped into the water to save others. He died after helping his friends escape.
There’s also a 44-year-old chief officer, Yang Dae-hong, whose last words to his wife when he phoned her for the last time was that he could not talk longer, because he had “to go out and support (help) the kids”; as well as a 36-year-old teacher, Nam Yun-cheol, who went downstairs to the cabins to fetch his students while the ship was sinking. He was last seen alive throwing life vests.
In the onset of the tragedy, President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye tried to console the bereaved and angry families, and reassured them that the authorities are doing everything they can to find the missing passengers.
“You must be so worried, unable to sleep … Never lose hope and please wait for the news of rescue.”
She had also gone to the rescue site earlier, pushing divers to continue looking for survivors despite dangerous weather conditions.
“Time is running out. Please hurry. If there are survivors, every minute and second is critical.”
HOPE AND DESPAIR
The entire country waited for news of more survivors. Some South Korean TV stations cancelled their regular shows to continue broadcasting updates about the search and rescue operations. Families of the missing passengers were filled with hope that their loved ones would be able to make it out of the ship alive, as there have been reports of students sending their parents text messages moments before the ship sank.
However, the police revealed that the messages of students still trapped in the ferry are fake. Based on the phone records analyzed by South Korea’s Cyber Terror Response Center, none of the students used their phones from the time the ferry capsized.
Below is an example of messages exchanged between an anxious father and his daughter trapped in the ferry:
DAUGHTER: “Dad, don’t worry. I’ve got a life vest on and we’re huddled together.”
FATHER: “I know the rescue is underway but make your way out if you can.”
DAUGHTER: “Dad, I can’t walk out … The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted.”
Now that it has been days and there’s only news of death, hope is slowly fading. Experts said that the trapped passengers would only be able to survive in an air pocket for about 72 hours.
On Friday, one of the teachers who accompanied hundreds of students on board the capsized ferry hanged himself from a tree outside the gym where families of the missing passengers were gathered. In a suicide letter found in his wallet, he said:
“Surviving alone is too painful while 200 remain unaccounted for. I take full responsibility. I pushed ahead with the school trip.”
“Burn my body and scatter my ashes at the site of the sunken ferry. Perhaps I can become a teacher for the missing students in my next life.”
“I will once again become a teacher in the afterlife for my students whose bodies have not been discovered.”
There has been a lot of misinformation regarding the ferry disaster and what caused the ship to capsize. Hours after Sewol sank, analysts hypothesized that the ship may have deviated from its intended course, but later on, a statement was made saying that the ship’s intended route was approved by South Korean Oceans and Fisheries Ministry and it did not veer off course. Then again, the chief of South Korea’s Yellow Sea Maritime Police Agency said that the ship did deviate from its course, though it didn’t seem to have hit a rock.
On the first day of the sinking, the media reported that all student passengers have been saved, but this proves to be false as there are students still missing at this point. Parents are blaming the media for the delay of rescue operations. If the media didn’t give that confusing report, students trapped inside could have been pulled out earlier, more lives could have been saved.
On Friday, there was another confusing report that divers have secured a passage to a dining room on the first floor of the ferry. Families were hopeful that passengers trapped inside would soon be rescued, but the West Sea Coast Guard denied it, saying divers had not yet been able to enter the hull.
PRAY FOR KOREA
Now most of the families’ grief is overcome by fury; hope replaced with desperation. The whole country prays for a miracle. Hundreds of students, parents and teachers lit candles and held a mournful vigil at a park in Ansan. Some held up messages to wish for the safe return of the missing passengers.
Some K-pop stars postponed the planned release of new albums or cancelled promotional events and concerts. Other Korean celebrities expressed their sadness via social media and are also praying for the safety of all the passengers.
Last night, while a group of Korean teenagers were fooling around, cursing one another and smoking “secretly” at the parking lot outside our apartment building, a former Korean student wrote this message on her Facebook page:
“Lord, I do not understand you,
But I still trust you.
제발 저 배에 타고 있는 사람들 살려주세요.
I asked her if she knew anybody from the ferry tragedy, she said she didn’t know any of the passengers, but she feels sad as a member of one nation and it hurts that there is nothing she can do to help those who are still trapped in the ferry.
There is truth to what she said. Right now, there is nothing much we can do but to wait and pray. Most of all, the families of the victims have to endure the anguish of waiting with uncertainty. We pray with them, we pray for them… that despite all this, the remaining 271 passengers will be found.