Friday, 16 May 2014

A month after Ferry disaster, closure eludes one mother

A month after the sinking of the ferry Sewol, Lee Gum-hee fears her daughter may never be found.

Ms. Lee's daughter, Choi Eun-wha, was one of the students from a Seoul area high school—the largest passenger group—aboard the ship that sank on April 16. With 250 students reported dead or missing, the 16-year-old was still unaccounted for as of Thursday.

The bodies of 284 people have been retrieved from the wreck—several in just the past few days. With 20 people still missing, the search continues, but the rate of recovery has slowed as divers have gone through most of the main cabins on the ship. At the same time, dangers for divers have increased as the ship's structure has weakened. Treacherous weather has also paused the search for days at a time.

Relatives of those missing still push for maximum efforts to retrieve their loved ones, but they are starting to confront the prospect that may not be possible.

"What really worries me is that my child may have already drifted away," said Ms. Lee, 44 years old, from a gymnasium near the site of the wreck, her eyes swollen from fatigue and damp with tears.

Late last month, fishermen recovered the body of a passenger of the ship two kilometers (1.2 miles) away from the ferry sinking site. Days later, a recovered body slipped away from divers and drifted 4.5 kilometers before being found again.

The coast guard has set up nets around the ship, and boats and aircraft search for any drifting bodies near the sinking site, but officials are afraid some may be lost for good.

Prosecutors have been investigating for weeks the crew members who were among the first rescued from the ship as many students were still stuck below deck. On Thursday, the captain of the ferry and three senior crew members were indicted on homicide charges, while 11 other crew members were indicted for negligence.

Government prosecutor Yang Joong-jin said the captain and the three senior crew members—the first officer, the second officer and the chief engineer—could face the death penalty if convicted.

Legal representatives for the crew members couldn't be reached for comment.

The school trip on the Sewol involved almost the full second-year grade at Danwon High School in Ansan, a satellite city of Seoul. Of Eun-wha's school mates, only the 13 students who didn't go on the fateful ferry trip plus two of the students who survived are back in school, local education officials say.

They said that most of the survivors, 69 students, are taking part in a program outside the school that includes art therapy, special lectures and individual and group counseling. Four students remain in the hospital.

"She used to rest her head on my lap in the kitchen," Ms. Lee said of her 16-year-old daughter, who recently decided that she would try to get a secure job in government to help support her family

Ms. Lee, who also has a son, is one of a dwindling group of relatives still camped out in a gymnasium near where the Sewol sank. The mood in the gym, highly charged with anger from grieving parents in the days after the disaster, has turned subdued as more families have packed up their sleeping gear and left as the bodies of their loved ones have been found.

At the gym, there is still the occasional shouting at journalists or officials, but some of the anger has been replaced by a more quiet anguish as the days follow their grim routine.

Shuttle buses run regularly between the gym and the pier where recovered bodies are brought in for identification. Often, the coast guard reaches out to families for identification after recovering cellphones or photo IDs from the victims. Most families have already provided police with their DNA samples.

A few days ago, Ms. Lee went out to a rescue barge in the sea with the help of the coast guard to watch divers search the sunken ferry. She wailed and cried, she said. Some of the divers also cried, she added.

Last week, a veteran civilian diver died while installing a line used to guide other divers in the murky waters and amid the strong current. Another diver was treated at a hospital after showing signs of decompression sickness, in another reminder of the risks facing divers.

"We want divers to stay healthy. After all, it's divers who can recover my kid and other victims from the ship," Ms. Lee said.

Eventually, the ferry will have to come out of the water—a subject that raises deep emotions among families of those still missing.

Five giant cranes brought to the site of the wreck in the days immediately after the sinking to lift the ferry out were withdrawn after opposition from family members, who thought that might jeopardize any potential survivors inside the ship. Families continue to object for fear of possible damage to bodies inside, officials says.

"We still dare not discuss the 'salvage' at meetings with the families," said a government official who handles administrative issues for the families. "The families are still pretty adamant that they oppose it."

In 2010, following the sinking of a navy corvette in the Yellow Sea, believed to be by a North Korean torpedo, the search for people lasted for eight days. With six navy sailors still unaccounted for, their families agreed to end the search after the death of a diver and fishermen aiding the operation. Personal belongings were used to bury those unaccounted for.

Such a scenario was still unacceptable to Ms. Lee as she sat in the gym, surrounded by empty mats or sleeping cots left by other parents who had gone home to bury their children.

"They have to hurry up. They have to pull out every single person from the cold sea by all means until nobody is left," Ms. Lee said.

Friday 16 May 2014


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