At a lonely altar, would-be rescuers remembered

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At a lonely altar, would-be rescuers remembered

INCHEON - The altar for two of the men who went down in the Yellow Sea during a doomed attempt to rescue the crew of the Cheonan is quiet.

Except for a few family members and sailors from the Kumyang 98’s sister ship, there have been scant visitors to remember Kim Jong-pyong, 55, and Cambang Nurcahyo, 36, whose bodies were recovered from the frigid waters southwest of Daecheong Island last Saturday, a day after the trawler sank.

Seven other crew members are still missing, and their fates unknown.

“Seok-hui’s dead because of me,” said a 40-year-old fisherman as he poured a cup of soju and wept. The fisherman regularly worked aboard the Kumyang 98, but his place on the rescue mission had been taken by Heo Seok-hui, 33, a sailor on the Kumyang 97.

The sailors on the two Kumyangs were more than colleagues, they were closer than family, said the fishermen around the somber altar.

“They depend on each other and build a stronger bond than with their relatives because they have to endure a tough life on the sea together for a long period of time,” said Seo Eun-sil, an employee of Kumyang Sea, the company that owns the two trawlers.

Kim Jong-yeoung, the captain of Kumyang 97, bowed repeatedly and apologized to the families of the lost sailors.

“Seok-hui was like my little brother. I even set him up on a blind date with my niece,” Kim said. “I also worked with [missing sailor] Lee Yong-sang for 16 years. When he damaged his liver by drinking too much alcohol, I forced him to get admitted to a hospital for treatment.”

The Kumyang 98 was 17 minutes into the search operation when its net ripped and it headed toward a fishing bank.

It is believed the boat may have been clipped by a Cambodian freighter, about 47 kilometers (29 miles) away from the site of the Cheonan catastrophe. It went down with all hands.

In Korea, when the main breadwinner of a family is missing or dead, his or her spouse and children can seek a six-month emergency subsidy of 930,000 won ($827) from the government. But all of the nine Kumyang 98 sailors lived alone.

“In many cases, people end up becoming fishermen because they’re in trouble with money or something else. They take to the waters to get away from their troubles. That makes it hard to get in contact with a fisherman’s family,” another worker at Kumyang Sea said.

“If we manage to reach a relative of one of missing sailors, we’ll be lucky.”

Among the few people to visit the fishermen’s altar have been Grand National Party floor leader Ahn Sang-soo and Democratic Labor Party President Kang Ki-kab, who paid their respects on Tuesday.

“The government should treat the dead sailors honorably because they passed away while they were doing something brave and right,” Ahn said.

By Lim Ju-ree, Kim Mi-ju []
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