S Korean ferry disaster: 'We are fighting against the state' response

Family members of missing passengers who were on the South Korean ferry "Sewol" which sank at sea wait for news from a rescue team, at a port in Jindo

JINDO, South Jeolla Province - Night and day merged into each other on Jindo Island off the southwestern coast of the Korean Peninsula, as families of those still missing after Wednesday morning's ferry sinking now wait for a miracle.

The ferry, which left Incheon on Tuesday night with 476 passengers onboard ― including 325 Danwon High School students from Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, on their way to a school trip to the southern island of Jeju ― sank near Jindo Island.

As of Saturday 9:40 a.m., 174 people have been rescued, 29 found dead and 273 are still missing.

"Children are dying. Get Park Geun-hye on the line!" demanded an emotional mother, one of the hundreds gathered at the indoor gymnasium that is serving as a temporary shelter for the families anxiously awaiting the latest news about their loved ones.

As the woman yelled her demand into a microphone, the Coast Guard officials who had been on a stage in the gymnasium since morning to brief the families on latest developments, stood by silently, their heads down.

Park was on the scene Thursday to reassure the families that the government would do everything it could to rescue the children.

Soon, the mother was urging everyone in the gymnasium to get up and demand that Park get on live camera and talk to the people in the gymnasium. She and the families also demanded that the scene inside the gym be broadcast live. Fighting among families in the gym added to the mayhem.

Earlier, an announcement by another family member that the autopsy of a recovered body showed that the person had died just a few minutes earlier set off a loud wail. Throughout the day, people were carried out in stretchers by military medics, succumbing to frayed nerves and exhaustion.

The already bad situation was further worsened by the families' distrust of briefings by government officials.

With its initial underestimation of the magnitude of the disaster, the government scrambled to respond to the tragedy, garnering distrust from the families.

Conspiracy theories run amok as highly agitated family members remained unconvinced that the authorities were doing their job. The distrust and conspiracy theories were fueled in part by inefficiency on the part of the government ― it was only late morning before an official from the Coast Guard took to the stage to offer regular briefings and answer families' questions.

Unconfirmed facts reported real-time by the media and distributed through SNS also added to the rumours and false information, making the already very difficult situation for the grieving families much worse.

By late Friday afternoon at Paengmok harbour, families of those missing from Wednesday's sinking of the ferry Sewol had lapsed into silence, still waiting to hear the latest news from the scene of the accident.

It had been almost 55 hours since the 6,800 ton ship sank, and as the day passed, the ship sank further into the seabed by dint of its weight, the families hearts sinking with it: Mothers had ceased to shed tears.

On the port's eastern fringes, soldiers from the Army's 31st Division, Red Cross volunteers, and local police officers were putting up tents to lay down the bodies of the victims if and when they were brought to the harbour.

Emotions had run high at Paengmok Harbor only hours earlier.

More than 1,000 parents and other relatives, journalists and emergency medical staff had waited at the port all night, foregoing sleep to hear word from the divers searching for survivors. Some 550 divers, including civilian divers, were in the area as part of the massive search-and-rescue effort underway.

The usually quiet Paengmok harbour resembled a refugee camp. Hundreds of volunteers from the Salvation Army and other relief groups handed out food and water, while the electricity company KEPCO installed light bulbs in the makeshift tents over night.

Confusion reigned, with family members of those missing demanding Kim Soo-hyun, the Coast Guard's chief of the West Regional Headquarters, answer questions about rescue efforts. Kim arrived in Paengmok early Friday to brief the families and be on hand to give more information.

"Are you getting oxygen into the ship?" asked one father. "It's been more than two days. Our children in the ship need oxygen." Rescuers said they had succeeded in pumping air into the sunken ferry at 10:50 p.m. Thursday.

Other parents silently wept, whispering their loved ones names, praying for them to return, while some lashed out at the cameramen filming the scene. "Get that thing out of here!" one man yelled, throwing a water bottle at a camera.

(khooran@heraldcorp.com), (hj257@heraldcorp.com)