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Ferry Disaster Makes South Korea Question Progress PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 21 May 2014 17:35

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

In this May 3, photo, Park Jong-dae, father of Danwon High School Junior, Park Su-hyun, who was killed in the sinking of ferry Sewol, looks at the high school in Ansan, South Korea. The tragedy, one of the worst maritime disasters in this country’s history, has prompted Koreans to question the very foundations of their society, their strong faith in authority, and the price of the rapid growth South Korea has seen over the last half century.

ANSAN, South Korea (AP) — Park Si-chan had trouble sleeping the night before the biggest trip of his young life, a four-day journey with his entire junior high school class to a lush volcanic island known here as the "Hawaii of Korea."

The trip was a rite of passage, the students' last chance for all-out fun before preparing for grueling, all-important university entrance exams over the next two years. And Si-chan was excited.

While packing, he kept saying, "'What am I missing?'" his father, Joseph Park, recalled. "He was feeling so proud to be all grown up. This was supposed to be an adventure."

Before the 17-year-old set off, the elder Park offered some advice. He told his son to be sure he knew where the life jackets were, "just in case." He added: "If anything happens, just do what those in charge say. Listen to them, and you'll be fine."

That's exactly what the kids and other passengers did, and many paid with their lives when the five-story-high Sewol ferry turned upside down and sank in just a few hours on April 16. Most of the 304 people dead or missing were teenagers trapped in cabins where the crew had ordered them to stay.

The tragedy, one of the worst maritime disasters in this country's history, has prompted Koreans to question the very foundations of their society, their strong faith in authority, and the price of the rapid growth South Korea has seen over the last half century.

"For us, it's a question of trust," said Changsu Han, a psychiatrist at the Korea University College of Medicine, which treated more than 70 students who survived the ordeal. "We are realizing the ties that bind our society together — justice, ethics, our moral system of social security — are not as strong as we thought they were."

The victims "listened to authorities, and did as they were told," he said. "They put on their life vests, and waited to be rescued. ... And many of them are waiting there still — at the bottom of the sea."

On the morning of April 15, one father, Lim Heemin gave his 17-year-old son Lim Hyun-jin 200,000 won (about $200). But the teen — a serious, bespectacled boy who sometimes stayed up until 2 a.m. studying — took only 50,000, saying he might lose the rest.

Park Jong-dae also gave money to his son, Park Suhyun, a bright 17-year-old who loved to play music on a black Epiphone guitar. The boy said he couldn't spend it all. He left about $50 on the dresser in his room.

The kids headed to Danwon High School in Ansan, an hour's drive south of Seoul. They wore their uniforms — ties for both boys and girls — and brought their luggage.

After lunch, Su-hyun asked his mom to bring anti-seasickness tablets to the school.

"Have fun! Be safe!" she called out when she left.

"OK, Mom!" he said, smiling as he ran off.

The students gathered at Incheon port for their overnight voyage to Jeju island. Heavy fog delayed the trip by two and a half hours, and some students thought it might be canceled.

"Why don't you just take a cab and come back?" Lim Heemin told his son by phone.

"Everybody is going, Dad, the entire class," Hyun-jin replied. "I have to go."

Their ship was a white, 6,852- ton ferry that could transport nearly 1,000 people along with hundreds of cars and dozens of shipping containers. A redesign two years ago by the owner, Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd., had added extra cabin space but also made the ferry more top heavy.

Paperwork filed by the captain, Lee Joon-seok, showed the Sewol was transporting 657 tons of cargo and 150 cars, according to the coast guard. But the company that loaded the vessel has said it was carrying more than 3,600 tons — three times as much as the limit stated in a regulator's safety report.

The ferry finally sailed at 9 p.m. with 476 people on board, including 325 students and 14 teachers. An hour later, the kids watched a dazzling fireworks display staged from the stern.

Ko Kyoung-jin, a truck driver who took the Sewol three times a week to deliver packages to a post office, was hoping to get to bed early. But from his thirdfloor cabin, he could hear loud Korean pop music blaring.

The students were partying on the floor above, dancing, hollering and doing the limbo.

Lim sent a text message to his son. "When are you going to go to sleep?"

"A little late," Hyun-jin replied.

"OK ... good night," his father wrote. "I miss you, my baby."

The next morning, the ship's cafeteria served a breakfast of sweet-and-sour pork and kimchi. Some students came with their hair, still wet from showering, wrapped in towels. Girls were putting on makeup, and boys blow-drying their hair.

Out on deck, the sky was overcast and gray. Strong winds were blowing across the water. Hyun-jin took photos of himself, wearing a gray hoodie, with friends. When he sent the last one to his father, at 8:52 a.m., Jeju was about three hours away.

On the bridge, third mate Park Han-gyeol ordered a helmsman to make a 5-degree turn. That's when something went gravely wrong.

Tracking data show the ship made a 45-degree turn instead. It is unclear why.

Ko, the driver, was on a back deck when he heard several shipping containers crash down on the Sewol's bow. Students on the deck above screamed. In the cafeteria's kitchen, pots and pans, utensils and chairs crashed to the floors.

Passengers who had slept late emerged, wide-eyed, to see what had happened.

"Don't worry, there's no chance it will sink," said a truck driver on deck with Ko.

The ship was already leaning so far to the left, it was difficult to walk. Park Su-hyun began filming with his cell phone from his bunk bed, as other kids cracked jokes.

"Am I really going to die?" one student asks in the video to the sound of laughter. A boy says, "it's going to be ... hilarious if we upload this on Facebook." Another adds, "It's like we're becoming the Titanic."

One by one, though, the students unpack life jackets still wrapped in plastic and put them on, saying they feel dizzy and weak-kneed.

At one point, somebody takes Su-hyun's phone and films him. He grins and holds up two of his fingers in a victory sign. When he flatly says, "I love you Mom. I love you Dad. I love you both," it is clear he does not realize those will be the last words he speaks to his parents.

The first distress call came from a student who called an emergency number at 8:52 a.m. The Sewol issued an urgent radio message three minutes later.

"Please notify the coast guard. Our ship is in danger. It's listing right now," one crew member said. "Please come quickly."

At 9:00, the crew told a marine traffic center, "It's hard for people to move." By 9:17, the vessel had tilted 50 degrees. But the messages that boomed through the ferry's loudspeakers repeatedly told people to stay where they were and not to move. Many were in their cabins or common rooms inside the ship, which was becoming increasingly difficult to escape.

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 21 May 2014 18:05