Families’ hopes for South Korea ferry victims painfully humble

Lee Byung-soo says he knew, when he saw his 15-year-old son’s body in the tent. It could not have been more horrifically obvious. But he wanted so much for him to be alive

JINDO, South Korea — Lee Byung-soo says he knew, when he saw his 15-year-old son’s body in the tent. It could not have been more horrifically obvious. But he wanted so much for him to be alive.

“Stop sleeping!” the truck driver yelled as he hugged Lee Seok-joon. “Why are you sleeping so much? Daddy will save you!”

He pumped his son’s chest and blew into his mouth to try to resuscitate him, “but I could only smell a rotting stench.”

This is the kind of heartbreak that awaits the families of about 220 people still missing from the submerged ferry Sewol, or at least those whose relatives’ bodies are ultimately recovered. Families who once dreamed of miraculous rescues now simply hope their loved ones’ remains are recovered soon, before the ocean does much more damage.

“At first, I was just very sad, but now it’s like an endless wait,” said Woo Dong-suk, a construction worker and uncle of one of the students. “It’s been too long already. The bodies must be decayed. The parents’ only wish right now is to find the bodies before they are badly decomposed.”

The pace of recovering bodies has accelerated in recent days, since divers finally succeeded in entering the vessel. There were 86 confirmed fatalities as of Monday night.

After the bodies are pulled from the water, police and doctors look for forms of ID and take notes on the body’s appearance, clothing and any identifying physical marks such as moles, said a Health Ministry official who was helping co-ordinate the effort and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Lee Seok-joon arrived as Body No. 41. The official description bore few details: a boy. Mole on forehead. Wearing a pair of Adidas track pants.

The bodies are transported to Jindo island, about an hour’s boat ride away, as rescuers notify families waiting at the port, or at a gymnasium where many are sheltering. Bodies without IDs are described to officials in Jindo who relay the details to the relatives.

At the dock, bodies are taken to a white tent for another inspection, then transported by ambulance to another tent. A coroner there cleans up the bodies, mostly to wipe off oil and dirt and straighten limbs, and then the families file in.

Only two pieces of news can be delivered here, and each is heartbreaking. Your loved one is dead, or still missing.

After reading the description of Body No. 41 on Saturday, Lee Byung-soo thought it couldn’t be his son. He had a mole, but it was near his eyebrow, not on his forehead. Then another student’s parent told him it probably was Lee Seok-joon, and he “rushed like a maniac” to the tent.

The sight of his son brought Lee to his knees. He later lashed out at a military doctor who was in the room removing Lee’s son’s clothes for further inspection. “Don’t touch my son!” he said. “He’s still alive!”

In truth, it was a grim sight. Lee said Monday, as he escorted his son’s body home by ambulance, that his right eye had completely decayed.

It is mainly the parents of teenagers living through this. About 250 of the more than 300 missing or dead are students from a single high school, in Ansan near Seoul, who were on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju.

Bodies are being identified visually, but family members have been providing DNA samples in case decomposition makes that impossible.

The families, and South Koreans more broadly, have at times responded with fury. The captain initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and waited more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order as the Sewol sank. By then, the ship had tilted so much it is believed that many passengers were trapped inside.

At a Cabinet briefing Monday, President Park Geun-hye said, “What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. Unforgivable, murderous behaviour.” The comments were posted on the website of the presidential Blue House.

Park said that instead of following a marine traffic controller’s instructions to “make the passengers escape,” the captain and some crew members “told the passengers to stay put while they themselves became the first to escape.”

“Legally and ethically,” she said, “this is an unimaginable act.”

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, and prosecutors said Monday that four other crew members have been detained. Senior prosecutor Ahn Sang-don said prosecutors would decide within 48 hours whether to seek arrest warrants for the four: two first mates, a second mate and a chief engineer.

A transcript of ship-to-shore communications released Sunday revealed a ship that was crippled with indecision. A crew member asked repeatedly whether passengers would be rescued after abandoning ship even as the ferry tilted so sharply that it became impossible to escape.

Lee, 68, has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived. But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck — where they would have had a greater chance of survival — without telling them to abandon ship.

The cause of the disaster is not yet known, but prosecutors have said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list. The third mate, who has been arrested, was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time.

Authorities have not identified the third mate, though a colleague identified her as Park Han-kyul. Senior prosecutor Ahn said Monday the third mate has told investigators why she made the sharp turn, but he would not reveal her answer, and more investigation is needed to determine whether the answer is accurate.

Many relatives of the dead and missing also have been critical of the government, which drew more outrage Monday with the resignation of Song Young-chur, a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.

Song, chief of the Regional Development Policy Bureau, reportedly tried to take a commemorative photo Sunday evening of the situation room in Jindo where government officials brief relatives of the missing.

Yonhap news agency reported that one family member shouted, “We are a nervous wreck here, and this is something to commemorate for you?”

Blue House spokesman Min Kyung-wook said the government accepted Song’s resignation “as a warning to others, as he has raised public resentment by trying to take commemorative photos without understanding the feeling of the families of the victims and lost persons.”

The search effort on Monday included more than 200 rescue boats, 35 aircraft, 13 fishing boats and 641 personnel, mostly coast guard and navy.

Most of the bodies found have been recovered since the weekend, when divers, frustrated for days by strong currents, bad weather and poor visibility, were finally able to enter the ferry. But conditions remain challenging.

“I cannot see anything in front … and the current underwater is too fast,” said Choi Jin-ho, a professional diver who searched the ferry Monday. “Then breathing gets faster and panic comes.”

Searchers on Monday deployed a remote-controlled underwater camera dubbed the ROV1 to explore the inside of the ferry. Unlike divers who have to surface after 20 minutes, the U.S.-built camera can be used for two to three hours.

The government-wide emergency task force centre issued a statement saying the ROV1 can reach places that are tough for divers to get to, but it added, “We are experiencing difficulty as there is lots of floating matter.”

Relatives have been allowed to observe the search operation in pairs, said Woo, the construction worker who is a relative of a missing student, and was to view the operation Monday.

Woo has been in Jindo, sleeping in his car, since Wednesday. Other relatives of the missing have taken shelter in a gymnasium.

Still others have put up tents near the port, where many sat in silence Monday, their faces blank and shoulders sagging from exhaustion. A Buddhist monk chanted prayers and tapped out a slow percussion on a wooden praying block from his perch at a dock facing the sea, providing a calming rhythm.

Lim Son-mi, who works at a daycare centre in Ansan, said some part of her still hopes that her daughter Park Hye-son is alive, no matter how unlikely that would be. Until then, and maybe after, she will be haunted by memories of their last conversation.

“She called me from the ferry and said, ’Mom, everything is so strange. We’re all wearing life jackets,’ but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I thought it was nothing. I found out only later from the news that it was this serious,” Lim said.

“I should be the one who should die.”

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