Volunteer army comforts Korea ferry disaster families

Volunteers prepare food at a gymnasium used as a gathering point for family members of missing passengers aboard the sunken South Korean ferry 'Sewol', in Jindo.

JINDO, South Korea - A small army of volunteers, offering everything from free taxi rides to laundry services and home-cooked food, has set up camp on the tiny island at the operational heart of South Korea's ferry disaster.

While corporations and top TV and sports stars sent large cash donations for recovery and rehabilitation efforts, thousands of ordinary South Koreans simply decided to send themselves.

The entire country has been rocked by the unprecedented tragedy that looks set to claim around 300 lives - most of them high school students - and there has been a national outpouring of sympathy for the devastated families.

Lee Won-Hong runs a small dry-cleaning business in the southern city of Jeonju. When he saw TV footage of anguished relatives camped out on the floor of a gymnasium on Jindo island - 100 miles (160 km) to the south - he didn't hesitate.

Loading a truck with several small washing machines, the 47 year-old father of two drove down to Jindo and set up a mini laundry service for the families.

"It broke my heart just to think what the parents must be going through ... so I wanted to offer some help for their basic needs," Lee told AFP.

The confirmed death toll from the sinking of the 6,825-tonne Sewol on April 16 stood at 181 on Friday, but with 121 still unaccounted for.

The relatives of the missing remain camped out in the gym in Jindo - the island closest to the rescue site.

Local officials say more than 200,000 packages containing food, clothes, toiletries and a myriad of other items have arrived from around the country, overwhelming the island's tiny postal service.

In and around the gym that at times has resembled a refugee camp, volunteers cook food, wash clothes, clean toilets, recharge batteries and even provide counselling to the grief-stricken families.

Also on hand are dozens of taxi drivers from Ansan city, home to Danwon High School which all the students aboard the Sewol were attending.

When the body of a student is recovered from the sunken ferry, they offer to take the bereaved parents the 210 miles back to their home town.

"I drove all the way from Ansan crying... I just feel bad that this is the only thing I can do for them," one driver told the YTN news channel.

Celebrities have pitched in financially, with figure skating star Kim Yu-Na and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ryu Hyun-Jin each offering 100 million won (S$120,000) to fund the search efforts.

Kim Soo-Hyun, the male star of the hit soap opera "My Love from the Star" who has a huge following in China, donated 300 million won for Danwon High School.