Agonizing wait for last victims of S. Korean ferry

Agonizing wait for last victims of S. Korean ferry

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JINDO, South Korea (AP) — Kwon Oh-bok lives in a tent in a dimly lit gym on Jindo island, the building where hundreds of families have received tragic news over the past six months. And where a tormented few still wait for it.

When the ferry Sewol sank April 16, he was an electrical repairman. Now he relies on unemployment benefits as he waits for word of his missing brother and nephew, whose portraits he has placed against the bottom of his tent. He drinks every night in an attempt to sleep.

He looks up at the gym's stands and remembers when hundreds of journalists competed for every inch of space. When relatives crowded around officials to curse at them for mishandling the rescue effort, or waited in agony to see whether their loved ones' bodies were the latest pulled from the water.

Now, almost everyone has gone. "The reporters left this building like a receding tide," said Kwon, 59.

Of the 304 people killed, 294 bodies have been recovered. The last was pulled from the water July 18. Since then, divers have found little beyond cellphones and school uniforms — the latter a reminder that the vast majority of victims were high school students on a class trip.

Relatives of the 10 victims still missing remain at the gym. Most say they have been there since the day of the sinking.

Jindo County officials have offered a better shelter, but the families refuse to leave. The gym is linked in the public mind to their plight, and they fear that if they leave, other South Koreans will forget them — even faster than they already are.

Shop owners on Jindo openly complain that the continued presence of victims' relatives at the gym hurts tourism, the island's lifeblood. Then there was the group of young people who, last month in Seoul, made a display of eating fried chicken and pizza next to victims' relatives as they staged a hunger strike to demand an independent investigation into the disaster.

Few South Koreans are that callous. But this is a country that endured the horror of the Korean War, yet forged ahead.

"This country forgets things very quickly," said Park Eun-mi, who lost her 17-year-old daughter.

"We haven't even been able to hold proper burials, but people want us to heal and to move on," said Yoo Baek-hyeong, the wife of a missing teacher. "For us, the clock stopped on April 16."


The relatives spend much of their time here sitting quietly on mattresses, watching two large TV screens. One shows a news channel; the other, live footage of the waters where divers search the ship's wreckage.

A shuttle bus leaves the gym every two hours during the day for the port, where maritime police officials hold briefings on search efforts. Every morning, two small boats carry relatives from the port to a spot near the search area.

There were once scores of families at the gym, and hundreds of volunteers who did laundry, scrubbed toilets, cooked meals and transported relatives between Jindo and their homes, which were mostly several hours away in the Seoul area. Now, on a typical day, there are about 15 relatives staying at the gym, and fewer than 20 volunteers.

Woo Kyeong-seok, a physical therapist who quit his job near Seoul over the summer to help out full-time at the gym, said volunteers struggle with their decision to go home.

"At some point, people have to return to their jobs and students have to return to their schools," Woo said. He vows to stay until the last family member leaves.

South Korea reacted with grief and fury after the 6,800-ton Sewol ferry listed and sank in cold waters off the southwest coast on a journey from Incheon port near Seoul to Jeju island. The sinking, and the shock that only 172 of the 476 passengers were rescued, prompted protests and a presidential vow to disband the heavily criticized coast guard.

Authorities believe overloading of cargo, improper storage and other negligence contributed to the disaster. Well over 100 people have been arrested, including all 15 crew members tasked with navigating the ship and other people connected to the ferry's operator, Chonghaejin. The company's billionaire owner fled from authorities and was later found dead.

Media interest related to the sinking has shifted to the capital, where victims' families and President Park Geun-hye are at odds over how to continue investigating the disaster. She has not fulfilled her promise to disband the coast guard, and with opposition even from members of her own party, it's possible that she never will.


Those still waiting at the gym are running out of money. They sleep poorly. Many are sick and depressed and, even half a year later, still racked with grief.

Lee Myeong-ho, 45, drinks too much and eats too little because of his sorrow over the loss of his older sister, Yeong-sook. He had lung surgery this summer for emphysema.

Shim Myeong-seop hobbles on aching knees every morning to a lighthouse near the port and throws a few spoonfuls of rice into the sea. The 48-year-old calls it breakfast for her daughter, Hwang Ji-hyeon, and a prayer that divers will find her body soon.

Park Eun-mi leaves the gym occasionally to get treatment for a non-malignant brain tumor. Her husband stays with her, but the leave his employer granted him is unpaid, and with a daughter in college, the couple has bills to pay.

As Kwon suffers and waits, he is haunted by security camera footage that authorities showed him of his brother, Jae-keun, and Jae-keun's family. It was recorded in the ferry's cafeteria shortly before the ship listed.

It shows Jae-keun blowing on some cup noodles and feeding them to his 6-year-old son, Hyeok-kyu. His wife, Han Yoon-ji, is watching their 4-year-old daughter, Ji-yeon, weaving through groups of schoolgirls. They were not victims at this moment, just a family of four getting ready to start a new life on Jeju, where Jae-keun had bought a tangerine farm.

Divers have recovered the body of Kwon's sister-in-law, but not those of Jae-keun or Hyeok-kyu. Only Ji-yeon, the youngest, survived. She lives with a sister of Kwon's and her husband, and is beginning to accept that her parents and brother are dead.

"One day her uncle folded a paper boat for her, and she pushed the boat forward, rolled it over and said, 'It suddenly tipped like that,'" Kwon said. "She remembers."


Although the families at the gym rue being slowly forgotten, there is a subject many of them would just as soon not think about: the salvaging of the ferry.

Divers may have reached the limit of what they can do. Every time they swim through the dark wreckage 40 meters (130 feet) underwater and brave the cold, swift currents, they take a risk. Two searchers have already died in the effort.

The government refuses to talk about the cost of the search, out of fear of angering the families, but they are likely enormous. Salvaging the ferry also will be a huge task, taking six months to a year and costing around 500 billion won ($481 million), the government has said.

"We have long passed a point where there should have been a serious discussion about pulling up the ship," said Lee Kyu-yeul, a Seoul National University marine engineering professor who has worked as a government adviser.

The debate over how to proceed in the investigation has hindered efforts to go ahead with the salvaging. It is a sensitive subject for the families, who associate salvaging with surrender, with the thought that their loved ones will never be found.

That is a thought Park Eun-mi is not willing to have. She said she tries to "hypnotize" herself to block it out.

"I eat, I move and I live because I need to endure until they find my daughter," she said.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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