The cruellest month
We were frustrated over the constantly changing numbers of the dead, the missing and even the total number of people who boarded the ferry in the first place. As the rescue mission continued, we anguished over changes in the current, wind and weather conditions.
Even after many days passed, we longed for miraculous news. But hope turned to despair over the weekend when the first bodies were retrieved from inside the overturned ship. With just 174 confirmed survivors - a number that stubbornly refused to change as the days went on - the chances of survival for more than two-thirds of 325 11th grade students from Danwon High School in Ansan on a four-day school trip became slimmer.
April 2014 was indeed a cruel month, cruel for our teens who innocently followed the orders of the Sewol crew to stay inside their cabins - while the crew was the first to flee from the sinking ship, saving 23 of them.
On Sunday, Christians celebrated Easter, Jesus Christ’s resurrection. About two weeks later, Buddhists will celebrate Buddha’s birth. Regardless of religion, none of us can accept the cutting short of the lives of so many young souls. We should bow our heads and read the words from the eulogy that novelist Kim Hoon wrote 26 years ago: “Go and never go through life and death again. Don’t accept life even in human or animal form. Dissipate and stay in the void. How is the place you’ve gone to? .?.?. Do the yellowish sun and ivory moon rise there too?”
None of us will give up hope that there could still be life under those cold waters. But what’s evident is that the Sewol ferry tragedy is irrevocable. No one can deny that. In the past, government officials censored information and told the public to believe that they did all they could. But we live in an entirely different world now.
The entire population watched the 6,825-ton ferry slowly capsize and disappear from our view. The frantic life-and-death moments between friends and teachers being separated forever were captured on smartphones. The final scene of students staying in place as commanded by the cowardly crew was taped, and we saw it long after the students themselves could be seen no more.
It was horrifying and surreal to watch events leading to the tragic end, which generated a gush of shame, guilt and helplessness in all who were forced to witness them. Worse, we can never forgive ourselves because we were able to save so few.
Bureaucrats seem to be oblivious to the fact that the world has changed. Housewives are the most informed, wired, connected and responsive group of people. They have their TVs on and check the Internet throughout the day, immediately rerouting news on mobile messaging platforms. No bureaucratic censorship can impede the spread of news through the Internet and mobile gadgets. The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters in Seoul, which was responsible for the least accurate information, had to confess it was checking rescue developments on TV.
People confirmed with their own eyes the uselessness of our public institutions. Instead of military ships and the Coast Guard, it was fishermen who came up with the idea of circling the ferry with nets to prevent bodies from floating off in the sea. An army of squid boats quietly lit the disaster zone. The people who first discovered and retrieved bodies by entering the ferry were not coast guards or Navy servicemen, but volunteer divers.
Society is near boiling point. A food company was bombarded online after it sent packages of roast chicken to a gymnasium that served as the headquarters of families waiting for news of their loved ones. “Who would want to grab a drumstick at a time like this?” one blogger railed. A radio station came under fire for insensitivity when it played the theme from the movie “Titanic.”
The military was humiliated. A private ship owner borrowed five special-purpose tugboats from overseas and installed an 8,000-ton maritime crane near the accident. But the Tongyeong, the country’s first rescue and salvage Navy ship, built about two years ago at a cost of 159 billion won ($153.2 million), remains chained to the dock. The unmanned submarine with sophisticated robotic sensors - allegedly capable of searching up to 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) undersea - was useless due to a power glitch.
We beat our chest impotently with belated regret for not having created a chivalrous society with awareness of the so-called Birkenhead drill - the “women and children first” protocol in abandoning ship - which was first practiced by the captain and soldiers of HMS Birkenhead, who famously stood firm until women and children boarded the lifeboats before the boat sank at Danger Point off the sea near South Africa in 1845.
To atone, we stand on the side of the bereaved families. The minister for gender and family was turned away when she tried to pay her respects to the student victims. The education minister was kicked out with rage after his aides insensitively notified the families to be ready because the minister was entering.
It shouldn’t have been the teachers of Danwon High School who knelt before the families in tears to apologize. We should all kneel. The prime minister finally had to promise that private experts will be included in future government briefings on the disaster to ensure credibility. The government has more or less admitted it was good for nothing. Cabinet members - if they have any decency left - should think about handing in their resignations.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 21, Page 30
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Chul-ho