Relatives on shore lose hope of survivors

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Relatives on shore lose hope of survivors

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At Easter Mass yesterday in Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul, Roman Catholic believers pray for the safe return of missing passengers from the sunken Sewol ferry. [NEWS1]

JINDO, South Jeolla - After making their first entry into the capsized Sewol Friday afternoon, search and rescue teams brought up 16 bodies from the doomed vessel, raising the total death toll to 58 as of 7 p.m. yesterday.

Of the 58 dead, at least 22 are Danwon High School 11th graders, who were on a four-day trip to Jeju Island when the ferry carrying 476 people capsized Wednesday morning.

Search and rescue teams found no survivors trapped inside the upside-down vessel in waters off the southwestern coast, raising fears that casualties will soon surge.

As the joint rescue team comprised of military, Coast Guard and civilian divers brought bodies from the sea to the shore, families who have been anxiously awaiting the return of their loved ones in Jindo, South Jeolla, for the past five days collapsed to the ground and cried uncontrollably.

Hundreds of relatives at Paengmok Harbor in Jindo, where the authorities bring in the bodies, burst into tears when they witnessed the arrival of 10 bodies at 9:45 a.m. yesterday, all of which were claimed through the night.

“Why are you lying here? Let’s go home now,” sobbed one relative in a makeshift tent, which was set up for identification confirmations by relatives.

“Please drive safely, he may wake up in the hospital,” one mother advised an ambulance driver who was transporting her son’s body away from the scene after she had identified it.

As of Sunday evening, 244 people were unaccounted for.

Some family members were heard saying the time had now come to think about raising the ill-fated ferry, a proposal the authorities have rejected so far since it would reduce the chances of survival for anyone trapped inside alive.

The loss of hope of finding any survivors, aggravated by a series of blunders by the authorities in the handling of the crisis, including repeated corrections in the number of people aboard and missing, enraged many of the 800 or so distraught relatives camped in a gymnasium in Jindo.

Over the weekend, the number of people that boarded the ship in the first place was raised from 475 to 476.

A group of about 100 family members began marching toward Jindo Bridge, which connects the island of Jindo to land, at 2 a.m. yesterday, saying they would walk all the way to Seoul to demand a meeting with President Park Geun-hye at the Blue House.

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A policewoman wipes away the tears of a woman yesterday when a group of relatives of missing passengers were halted at Jindo Bridge by the police and prevented from marching toward the Blue House in Seoul. [NEWS1]

Blocked by the police at 6:30 a.m. at an intersection about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away from the bridge following a four-hour walk, some desperate relatives collapsed to the ground.

“I am a mother who lost her son deep inside the sea and I cannot do anything about it,” cried the mother of Kim Seong-bin, one of the Danwon high school students unaccounted for. Seventy-five students were rescued.

Only after the authorities promised that Prime Minister Chung Hong-won would have a meeting with the representatives of the relatives yesterday morning did the families break up and turn back to the gymnasium.

The 13 representatives met with Chung at 12:40 p.m. at the gym and asked the government to prioritize rescue work before starting lifting operations. The families also requested that they should decide when and where to hold joint memorial services.

Hope of finding survivors in air pockets diminished steadily.

If located in air pockets of a sunken ship, people can survive up to 72 hours, experts say.

The shouting and throwing of water bottles at officials from the Coast Guard demanding speedier rescue work and more communication with relatives that marked the first few days ebbed into silence, sighs and low-tone conversation among family members yesterday, five days after the deadly capsizing.

Families were becoming resigned that they will have to brace for losses.

“To be honest, it’s hard to think she is still alive inside the ship,” said Bang Jin-hyun, a 68-year-old woman from Busan. Bang’s daughter-in-law is among the 244 unaccounted for.

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“She lives in Jeju Island and visits Seoul for her business. She was on the ferry on her way home from a business trip,” said Bang, who came to Jindo Thursday with her husband and grandson, the missing woman’s son. She said there was no contact with her daughter-in-law, 52, since the accident.

“We don’t know what to think or do now since everything has been just so abrupt,” said Bang. “My grandson has not eaten anything except water. His mother was the only direct family member he had.”

The uncomfortable silence in the gym was suddenly broken by a cry of anguish from a middle-aged woman pointing at a large TV screen that was set up for the relatives a day after President Park visited to the gym Thursday. The screen was showing a description of the most recent fatality brought from the ferry. The corpse was been identified by ID found in its clothing - the victim’s name was Huh and he was described as being 170 centimeters tall. The number 56 was written next to his name, meaning he was the 56th casualty out of 58 found so far.

“I said he was alive inside the ship. I told you to go out to find him!” the woman cried to her other relatives. “He was on a list of survivors sent in a text!”

She was referring to messages sent via social networking services that allegedly identified live passengers trapped inside the capsized ship. The government warned that the messages were not authentic.

“I am not going [to check the body] until the president comes here,” the woman insists. “I won’t go.”

Watching the woman collapse to the floor sobbing, another family member from Busan murmured, “She is fortunate that she has the body.”

Kim Jin-joo, a sister of Jin-kwang, a missing Danwon student, looked much more somber yesterday than when the Korea JoongAng Daily first met her Friday. On Friday, Jin-joo said she and her twin sister were both confident their beloved brother would surely come back.

“There has been no contact from him yet,” said Jin-joo with her parents sleeping on a thin mattress on the gym floor.

It took four days for the authorities to claim the first three bodies from the sunken vessel at a stairway on the fourth floor deck at 11:48 p.m. Saturday. The Navy’s Sea Salvage and Rescue Unit entered the ship by breaking a window on the fourth deck with a special-purpose hammer. All of the three fatalities were wearing life jackets, the Coast Guard said.

The claiming of those three bodies came more than 30 hours after they made their first entry into the ship at 3:38 p.m. Friday, though that stay lasted only 14 minutes because a lifeline that connected them to a rescue boat above snapped, a telling sign of strong underwater currents.

Low visibility and strong underwater currents in the area hampered the rescue operations, particularly for divers who spent three days trying to get into the ferry.

Meanwhile, the government declared Ansan and Jindo special disaster zones, making the two areas eligible for extra government support.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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