Grief pours out at Ansan memorial altarANSAN, Gyeonggi - “Excuse us here,” a man said in a low voice.
Dressed in black, he and his relatives passed through Ansan Olympic Memorial Hall. Leading the group was one of the venue’s officials, a man, likely in his early 20s, who carried a portrait of a smiling, fresh-faced boy who had once been a student at Danwon High School.
Like so many others, his life was cut short on April 16, when the Sewol ferry, which was carrying 476 passengers from Incheon to Jeju Island that morning, suddenly began to list and eventually capsized. The teenager was among 325 students and 15 teachers on a class field trip to the Korean resort island.
The accident, possibly the nation’s worst peacetime disaster, has so far left more than 150 dead and 146 unaccounted for, as of 8 p.m. yesterday.
“Are you the relatives of the victim? Please come inside,” a woman responded, guiding the family into a small annex inside the Ansan memorial hall. There, they were instructed by organizers on memorial procedures and where they could place the portrait of their loved one.
After a few minutes, once they were emotionally prepared, the group entered a large room, where a massive altar for the fallen high schoolers has been set up.
As the family walked inside, there were no cries or screams. No one spoke. The parents stood immediately behind the man carrying the portrait and followed him with surprisingly quiet composure.
The portrait of the young man soon filled one of the many empty seats at the altar, which is elaborately decorated with white chrysanthemums.
Then the grief poured out.
“My son! My son!” the woman cried. She and her other relatives sobbed, staring at the portrait that had just been placed before her. Few sounds were heard above their wails, save for the clicking of camera shutters and somber piano music.
Any silence at the altar was intermittently broken by the cries of other families, who went through the same agonizing ritual one by one - placing pictures and nameplates of their loved ones on the makeshift shrine, and saying their final goodbyes.
Since its opening on Tuesday, countless people from Ansan, Gyeonggi, where the high school was located, and elsewhere have visited the mass memorial to mourn for some of the doomed ferry’s youngest victims.
“I am just so sorry for my grandsons and daughters, who were and are still in the cold water,” cried 68-year-old Im Kyung-ok, who visited from Incheon, referring to the dead as if they were her own.
“To me, they are just like my grandchildren,” she continued, a tear falling down her cheek. My heart sinks when I think of them. Making a visit here is nothing when I think about what all these young children went through in those dark waters.”
The disaster’s death toll is high and has continued to mount with each passing day as divers make their way through the capsized ship in their search for bodies.
There are six rows for portraits here, and most of them are waiting to be filled - a grim reminder of the accident’s heavy cost. Of the six rows, less than one and a half were filled as of 4 p.m. yesterday. With more bodies from inside the 6,825-ton ferry now being brought ashore by rescue teams, those empty spots will likely be occupied too quickly.
Two large television screens in the memorial hall displayed photos of the students from Danwon who perished. Another showed text messages delivering final words to the dead and condolences to their relatives.
People also put up Post-it notes along the wall, many of them from adults expressing their apologies to the victims.
“Now, you don’t have to suffer anymore. Now, you don’t have to be scared. Now, you don’t have to be cold. You can now be embraced by your mother, children,” one note read.
All throughout the day, a long line of people there to pay their respects filled the venue.
“My daughter showed me a picture of her and her classmates taken on Jeju Island when she was there on a school trip [more than 10 years ago],” a woman from Incheon said after she had finished grieving. “My daughter told me, ‘Mom, this was how beautiful we were back then at 17 years old. We were just so happy. These kids died at a time with so much joy in their lives.’?”
The woman, 57, asked that her name not be disclosed.
Those attending the services were noticeably distrustful of the media and government officials. Since the accident, the government and news outlets have come under fire for the poor way in which they have dealt with and covered the disaster.
Those feelings were only exacerbated following a visit here by Representative Lee Jung-hee, the chairwoman of the minor opposition Unified Progressive Party.
Yesterday, when Lee tearily added her name to the guest book, camera crews converged upon her, blocking an entranceway to the altar and enraging those managing the services.
“How can [press crews] block the entranceway?” one of the organizers protested.
“The press did nothing when the government dragged its feet in saving our children,” cried another manager who is also the mother of a Danwon High School graduate.
She and many others whose children are alumni of the institution have helped to run the memorial event.
As of 5 p.m. yesterday, more than 30 bodies had been recovered by authorities from inside the capsized ferry. Of the more than 100 dead, at least 21 of the bodies recovered have been identified as Danwon students.
BY KANG JIN-KYU [firstname.lastname@example.org]