The atmosphere during Wednesday night worship in South Korean churches was salty with tears and bitter with shock. By then, the whole nation was following the tragic news of the ferry Sewol’s sinking that morning with more than 320 high-school students aboard.
The 480-foot ferry left Incheon in northwest South Korea on Tuesday for an overnight, southbound journey to the tourist island of Jeju. Just three hours from its destination on Wednesday morning, the vessel started to list at a severe angle. According to a video shot by a survivor, truck driver Kim Dong Soo, passengers in life jackets were clinging desperately onto the side of the ship as it tilted acutely and finally capsized. All but a portion of the keel is now submerged in 54-degree Fahrenheit waters.
As of Friday, the confirmed death toll was 28, with 179 survivors rescued. Among the dead were four 17-year-old students, a 25-year-old teacher, and a 22-year-old female crew member. More than 270 are still missing, with their likelihood of survival shrinking by the hour.
For churches in Ansan, a city south of Seoul, the names of Danwon High School second-year students on the ferry— mainly teenagers aged 16 and 17— brought to mind faces they saw just last Sunday. They prayed, weeping with wrapped fists and raised palms, that they would see those faces again. According to reports from 19 local churches in Ansan, 47 out of about 270 missing high school students are church members.
Prosecutors asked a court to issue an arrest warrant for the ferry’s captain, 68-year-old Lee Joon Seok, who survived. They are looking into whether the captain abandoned the ship and the mistakes he might have made along the way. Investigations revealed the ship went off-course before listing. Survivors’ testimonies and a transcript of a ship-to-shore radio exchange revealed the captain told passengers not to evacuate even after a South Korean transportation official recommended evacuation. Survivors said they already had their life jackets on, and they “had time” to jump into the water and be rescued. One survivor told The Associated Press that many people were trapped inside the cabins once the ferry sunk, pounding on windows that were too hard to break.
Later reports revealed that the captain was one of the first to escape Sewol. Of the 29 crew members, 20, including Lee, survived. Lee has yet to speak, but he made a brief videotaped appearance with his face shrouded by a gray, hooded sweatshirt. When a reporter asked him if he had anything to say, he broke down into sobs, saying, “I am really sorry and deeply ashamed. I don’t know what to say.”
The ship’s owner, Kim Han Sik, president of Chonghaejin Marine Co., appeared on broadcast to apologize. He bowed deeply and said with wet cheeks, “I committed a sin punishable by death. … I am at a loss for words. I am sorry, I am sorry.”
About 170 ships and 500 divers looked for survivors around the ferry on Thursday. But pattering rain, whooshing winds, and heavy fog slowed down rescue efforts. Immediate families and relatives stayed close to the coast, many refusing to sleep. They wailed and wept as officers wheeled recovered bodies into ambulances, while at least a couple relatives were carried away on stretchers after collapsing from grief. Others, who have still not recovered their loved ones, desperately clung to to subsiding hope, even as they criticized rescuers for not working fast enough. “Hurry up, faster!” one woman yelled. Another distraught father screamed, “Get my child out of that ship! Dead or alive!”
In a tragic turn of events, Danwon High School’s vice principal, who was one of the survivors, was found hanging from a tree on Friday. Police said Kang Min Kyu, 52, apparently hung himself with a belt from a tree near a gymnasium in Jindo, a makeshift campground for families of missing passengers.
This publicized text message of one passenger to his mother went viral: “Mom, in case I don’t get to say this again, I love you.”
The mother typed back, “Why…? Me too, son..~ I love you.”
The son has since been rescued and reunited with his mother, but other parents still wait for news of their children. An emergency official said the water’s temperature was cold enough to cause symptoms of hypothermia after about 1 1/2 hours of exposure. Some officials said it’s unlikely the remaining missing passengers will be found alive.
Ko Jae Hyong, who runs a fried chicken restaurant near the school, held a candlelight vigil Wednesday night with about 30 others in the neighborhood. Ko, whose daughter is a first-year student at Danwon, remembered some of the missing students who used to pop by to eat chicken and joke with him. “Now, the neighborhood is like a funeral home,” he said.
Ansan First Presbyterian Church received happy news that one of its six missing students survived. They had spent a tearful Wednesday night service praying for their young members. Right after the service ended late at night, the church held yet another special prayer meeting for the missing passengers.
At least one pastor of other local churches rushed to the tragedy site, while others sought to comfort families, friends, and teachers at Danwon High School. All of them sent out emergency prayer requests through cellphone text messages.
Min Sung Woo, who leads the high school ministry at Ansan Kwanglim Methodist Church, told South Korean newspaper Kookmin Ilbo that when he heard the news, he immediately visualized four of his students who had gone on that ill-fated field trip. “I can’t believe it. In my eyes, I can still see these good kids. I only wish for their safe return,” he said.
Senior pastor Min Kyong Bo sent out text messages to congregation members on Wednesday that stated, “Dear members, please pray that God will look after the lives of our four students and that they’ll return unhurt. And please pray for all the other souls who are also in grave danger.” That night during the emotional service, he announced, “We may not have any conclusion, but we cannot give up on hope.”