An April to remember in S Korea

An April to remember in S Korea

Cherry blossoms line the streets of the quiet residential neighborhood. Warm winds glide by. Birds chirp. Children play football nearby. Cars skate past every few minutes. It is spring again.

It was serene and peaceful, thought Lee Hye-gyung, owner of a small laundry shop on Danwon Street in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, a working-class town just south of Seoul. Lee went about her usual work of ironing shirts and knitting and patching clothing.

Just two blocks from her small shop is Danwon High School, where her two children once attended. Her daughter has now gone to college. But her son Jun Hyun-tak has gone to heaven.

She stared at the school from her shop window just as she has thousands of times before, during brief pauses in an interview last week.

Why. Why him. Why now. Why me. Why, Lee had asked.

Hyun-tak drowned in the Sewol ferry disaster on April 16 last year. He was on the 6,825-ton passenger ferry Sewol when it capsized in waters off Korea's Jindo Island, South Jeolla Province.

Over 300 people died, 250 of them students from Danwon on a school trip. The ferry was on a routine trip from Incheon to Jejudo Island.

The New York Times called it one of Korea's "worst peacetime disasters." The Financial Times said it signaled a "need for broad reform of South Korea's safety regulations." Korean opposition lawmakers called it a "massacre." Prosecutors here called it a "murder."

Victims' families, including Lee, call it a man-made calamity.

Whatever it was, the Sewol disaster is an ongoing matter, Lee said. One year on from the tragedy, nine people remain missing.

Lee still has questions about the disaster's causes and government rescue efforts, such as who allegedly erased her son's cellphone records from the day of the disaster.

"I visit the school every now and then to remember him. I go to his classroom to miss him, now that he's gone," Lee said. She spoke calmly, sometimes whispering, sometimes pausing to cry. "I had rarely, if ever, visited the school before the accident." It was Hyun-tak's birthday the day before the accident, she added after a brief moment of silence. He would have turned 18 this year.

Calm before the storm

It had been foggy at Incheon Harbor on the evening of April 15 last year on Hyun-tak's 17th birthday. The Sewol was docked at the port and ready to go once the fog dispersed.

At about 9 p.m., port officials announced the ship would sail.

"We went out to the harbour to eat dinner," said Choi Eun-soo, one of the survivors.

Choi was among the dozens of truck drivers who were familiar passengers on the ship, as they transported cargo between the mainland and Jejudo Island regularly. They had loaded their vehicles on the ship that night and had been waiting.

"(We) were just killing time on the port," Choi said.

It was around that time that Choi and the other drivers saw the Danwon High School students for the first time.

"The kids were extremely noisy that night," remembered Park Yong-woon, another driver who was on the Sewol. "They boarded the ship about that time (when port officials said the Sewol would sail). Probably excited, I guess, about their trip."

Hyun-tak talked to his mother over the phone for the last time, some minutes after he and his classmates boarded.

"I'm eating dinner on the ship now, Mom," he said.

"So the ship's sailing as planned, despite the fog?" Lee asked.

"Yes, Mom."

The night went by relatively peacefully, according to survivors. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, they added. The fog didn't appear to be an issue.

They all went to sleep in their cabins.

Disaster strikes

It was after breakfast the next morning at about 8:49 a.m. when disaster struck.

"I remember falling against the wall hard," said Jeon Byung-sam, another driver on the ship. "I was walking in the hallway when the ship suddenly turned. I fell through my cabin door and lost consciousness after hitting the wall."

Jeon relayed his story at a bedside interview last week in a psychiatric hospital in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jeon had fallen because the Sewol had begun listing portside after an undertrained crewmember manning the ship turned it sharply starboard. Portside refers to the ship's left and starboard the right.

The ballast water in the ship that should have rebalanced it was insufficient, containing only 580 tons, less than 40 per cent of its legal requirement.

The Chonghaejin Marine Co., the Sewol's operator, had removed some of the water to load the ship with commercial cargo, apparently to gain more revenue. The overloaded cargo weighed as much as twice its legal limit, prosecutors said. The shipping company had also constructed additional cabins on the ship's upper floors, worsening its balance.

Despite the ferry's listing, the crew told passengers to stay in their cabins through on-ship broadcasts. Captain Lee Jun-seok, who has been charged with murder and negligent homicide, testified he feared the swift currents would sweep away those jumped ship.

But Lee himself abandoned the ferry once the Coast Guard arrived on the scene at about 9:30 a.m. He allegedly failed to issue evacuation orders before leaving the ferry in his underpants.

By then the ship had listed about 60 degrees, making it difficult to climb out. Those on the upper side threw down fire hoses to aid people stuck on the ship's sinking side, according to Choi.

"That's all we had. When we asked the Coast Guard officers for ropes, they said they didn't have any."

Most of the students stayed in their cabins as told, even as water began seeping in. Those stuck inside the sinking Sewol knocked on their cabins' windows, helplessly asking for rescuers to break them open, survivors said.

Only a few stuck inside made it out alive.

"I can still see the students banging on the ship's windows," Jeon said.

The unconscious Jeon had woken once the cold sea water began flowing into his cabin. He climbed out his cabin door and jumped into a nearby rescue boat, despite his injured arm.

"For months after the accident, I saw the students in front of my hospital bed. Every time, it took me five minutes or so to realise I was hallucinating," Jeon said.

Park remembers offering his jacket to one of the rescued students after they were pulled from the sinking ship.

"The kids reminded me of my grandchildren," the 63-year-old driver said. "Those kids..." he murmured before pausing to wipe away tears during an interview last week.

"The nightmares are worse. I dream about those students who I remember weren't able to get out," he recalled.

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