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JINDO, South Korea (AP) — In a dimly lit gym on Jindo island, hundreds of families have received tragic news over the past six months, and a tormented few still wait for it.
Of the 304 people killed when the ferry Sewol sank April 16 near Jindo, 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 passengers still missing remain at the gym, a staging area for the families since the disaster began. Local officials have offered them better lodging, but the families have refused to leave.
They live with the fear that the bodies of their loved ones might never be found, and agonize over growing public sentiment in South Korea that the grieving families should move on.
Here is a look at some of the relatives waiting in the gym:
Kwon Oh-bok was an electrical repairman before the ferry sank. Now the 59-year-old 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.
His brother and his family took the ferry from Incheon port, near Seoul, to reach the southern island of Jeju, where Jae-keun had purchased a tangerine farm. He had been excited about opening a new chapter in his life.
The body of Kwon's sister-in-law, Han Yoon-ji, 29, was found days after the accident. Jae-keun, 54, and his 6-year-old son, Hyeok-kyu, remain missing. Only Kwon's niece, 4-year-old Ji-yeon, survived.
Kwon is haunted by security camera footage that authorities showed him of the family in the ferry's cafeteria shortly before the ship listed. Jae-keun blows on cup noodles and feeds them to his son, while his wife watches her daughter run around, weaving through a group of schoolgirls.
Ji-yeon, who now lives with one of Kwon's sisters, is beginning to accept that her parents and brother are dead.
"One day her uncle (the husband of Kwon's sister) 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."
Park Eun-mi, 44, recalls her last conversation with her 17-year-old daughter with regret.
Park drove Huh Da-yun to school before she and her classmates left on the ferry. She had to drive back home at one point because Da-yun had forgotten her cellphone. Park spent her last moments with Da-yun scolding the mild-mannered girl, whose dream was to become a kindergarten teacher.
"I didn't hug her," Park said. "That's what hurts the most."
Park stays at the gym with her husband, whose employer granted him unpaid leave. Park leaves occasionally to get treatment for a non-malignant brain tumor. And now bills are beginning to pile up: The couple have a daughter in college.
Park said she tries to "hypnotize" herself to block out the thought that divers might never find Da-yun. She vows to stay until they do, but also fears becoming the last person to leave the gym.
"We are down to the last 10 and I am still here," Park said.
Hwang In-yeol, 51, and Shim Myeong-seop, 48, waited seven years to have a child. Now they struggle to accept that it's only the two of them again.
"We thought of her as a precious gift," Hwang said of his missing 17-year-old daughter, Hwang Ji-hyeon.
His wife hobbles on aching knees every morning to a lighthouse near Paengmok port and throws a few spoonfuls of rice into the sea. She calls it breakfast for her daughter, and a prayer that divers will find her body soon.
"She started doing it about three months ago," said Hwang, explaining that the mother of another victim had done the same before divers found the body of her child. "But more than that, she wants to feed a warm bowl of rice to her daughter, who's still trapped in the cold waters."
Hwang, who works for an auto parts manufacturer in Incheon, regretted that his long working hours prevented him from talking much to his daughter before the accident.
"Ji-hyeon had a talent for painting. She was also studying Chinese with the goal of becoming a translator," Hwang said. "But I wish knew more about my daughter than I do now."
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