Hope resigns to reality: S. Koreans now just want their loved ones recovered from ferry

Twenty parents of missing high school students gathered behind a television truck Sunday afternoon and talked about a subject that, for days, they hadn’t been willing to broach.

“Realistically,” one parent told the group, “we need to acknowledge that we have no hope of finding our children alive.”

Nobody disagreed.

Instead, they discussed the logistics of recovery, of finding a way to pull their teenage children from the water as quickly as possible. That, they agreed, should be the new focus of a government search unfolding about 10 miles off the coast.

The parents took turns talking. There were bags under their eyes. Their voices never rose. A few puffed cigarettes. They’d been asked by the South Korean coast guard to offer opinions about the next stage of the search, and here they discussed in detail ways to lift the submerged ferry out of the Yellow Sea, if only as a way to end an impossibly bleak wait.

Sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard conducted search and rescue operations near the scene of the sunken ferry Sewol. (Reuters)

“People have lost hope very quickly,” Yoo Kyeong-geun, the father of an 11th-grader on the ferry, said after the meeting. “Until yesterday, nobody could even talk about dragging the ship out of the water” — a jarring step that would endanger any survivors — “but now a lot of people say it. It’s just so we can see our kids’ faces one last time before their bodies become more damaged underwater.”

After the ferry with 476 people aboard capsized Wednesday, relatives who rushed to this rural port town — a staging area for the recovery effort — were frantic, so furious about the pace of the rescue operation that they doused the prime minister with water. By Sunday, those relatives had grown hushed, and at Jindo’s port, bodies were brought to shore in twos and threes.

The Sewol had been sailing from Incheon to Jeju when it tilted and sank off the southwestern coast of the Korean Peninsula. So far, 174 passengers have been rescued — all in the first few hours of the disaster. South Korean officials on Sunday released an extended transcript of communication between the stricken vessel and maritime operators, shedding light on some of the confusion aboard before the ship lost contact.

Within 19 minutes of placing a distress call, a Sewol crew member said three times, when asked about passengers aboard, that it was difficult to move around the dramatically tilted vessel.

“The ship is tipped over too much,” the crew member said at one point. “It’s impossible to evacuate.”

Some survivors say an evacuation order was never given, and those who heeded crew advice to stay in place were most likely trapped aboard after the ferry overturned.

The relatives of those who didn’t make it out are now waiting. Some loved ones of those still missing — numbering about 240 — are camped out at a gymnasium 30 minutes away. But many spend their days at the port, where a tent city with volunteers, free food and cots has sprouted. The tents span a quarter-mile — the Red Cross here, mobile food trucks there. Another tent has only a whiteboard, labeled at the top “List of Names.” Dozens of people at a time stand around the list of victims, photographing it, staring at it, sometimes sniffling.

When bodies are found offshore by divers, an official walks over to the list with a pen. On Sunday, the list began with 36 names. By sunset, there were 58, and by Monday morning, 64. Some had been identified by their height and appearance, others not at all. No. 48 was Guk Seung-hyeon, one of the 325 high school students heading on a four-day trip. No. 49 was a man, 5-foot-7, wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt.

In the first four days of the search, bodies were found slowly, only when currents washed them out of the ferry and into the Yellow Sea. But late Saturday, divers punctured a hole in the vessel, opening up the first passageway to some of the chambers. After that, police vessels began pulling up to Jindo’s port every hour or two with bodies.

No. 50 arrived at 2:10 p.m., along with Nos. 51 and 52, sending many of the relatives in the tent city scrambling to the docks. Dozens of police officers stood at attention in rows, and six officers carried each of the covered bodies toward yet another tent, marked “Identification.” An official gathered relatives of the missing and described some of the identifying characteristics of the latest three found dead. A New Balance T-shirt. Track pants. Most heard the description and walked away.

Several hours later, Yoo and the other parents were discussing ways to speed up the search. They talked about stationing a barge in the area that divers could use to rest and to put on equipment. They also talked about hoisting the ship from the sea floor — a process that will require several massive marine cranes and a floating dock.

“Do you even know how long it takes to pull a ship out of the water?” one father said. “I’ve heard 20 days.”

Yoo said that depending strictly on divers seemed to him a method “30 or 40 years old.”

Yoo’s daughter, Yoo Ye-eun, attended Danwon High School in Ansan, a city just south of Seoul.

“I’ll stay here until it’s all over,” Yoo said. “Until I leave here with my daughter.”

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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