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South Korean boy and girl tied lifejackets together before drowning on ferry

A woman cries while praying during a candlelight vigil in Ansan, to commemorate the victims of capsized passenger ship Sewol and to wish for the safe return of missing passengers, April 23, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

In a tale that has gotten sadder by the day, there are few vignettes more heartbreaking than this one. South Korean divers announced Thursday that they found the bodies of a boy and girl. The children, both of whom had been trapped on a ferry that sank last week, had tied their lifejackets together, presumably so they wouldn’t float apart.

When the diver found them, he had to finally separate them because, Reuters reports, “he could not carry two corpses up to the surface at the same time.”

“I started to cry thinking that they didn’t want to leave each other,” the diver told the newspaper Kyunghyang Shinmun on Thursday.

On April 16, the Sewol ferry, which weighed close to 7,000 tons, capsized and sank while navigating what officials say was a routine trip from Incheon, near Seoul, to the island of Jeju. The vessel had carried more than 470 people — the majority of them students or teachers at Danwon High School. As of Thursday, 171 were confirmed dead. More than 100 more are still missing and presumed dead.

The tragedy has cast a profound darkness over the peninsular country. The vessel’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, was one of the first to flee the sinking ship. He has since been arrested, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye said this week his actions were “tantamount to murder.”

It appears now as though the Korean government bungled its response. Many of the children were ordered to remain in the cabins and wait for a rescue that would never come. Since the sinking, South Korean authorities have expanded their investigation into other parts of the shipping industry.

“The objective was to investigate malpractices and corruption in the entire shipping industry,” Incheon District prosecutor Song In-taek said after two shipping watchdogs, the Korea Shipping Association and the Korea Register of Shipping, were raided this week.

Today, the word “shame,” which carries heavy meaning in South Korea, has seeped into many parts of the nation’s life. Some mourn their own national identity. The high school’s vice principal hanged himself last week, and many South Koreans can’t turn away from the unfolding tragedy.

“I find myself looking at my smartphone every hour, checking how many more bodies were found and how the victims’ parents are coping with the situation,” Shin Ye-sol, a 27-year-old office worker, told the Korean Herald.

“This is utterly unbelievable,” another person said, weeping.

Unbelievable because Thursday carried more heartbreaking news. The body of the boy who had first alerted authorities to the sinking ferry was also apparently found. Though he wasn’t formally identified, his parents, according to Reuters, saw the body and concluded it was their son’s.

Some of his last words were in a phone call to the emergency number 119. “Save us!” he cried in a wobbling voice. “We’re on a ship and I think it’s sinking.”

Others sent last text messages. “Mom, I might not be able to tell you in person,” one child wrote. “I love you.”

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.
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