JINDO, South Korea – Lee Byung-soo says he knew, when he saw his 15-year-old son’s body in the tent. It could not have been more horrifically obvious. But he wanted so much for him to be alive.
Stop sleeping! the truck driver yelled as he hugged Lee Seok-joon. Why are you sleeping so much? Daddy will save you!
He pumped his son’s chest and blew into his mouth to try to resuscitate him, but I could only smell a rotting stench.
This is the kind of heartbreak that awaits the families of about 220 people still missing from the submerged ferry Sewol, or at least those whose relatives’ bodies are ultimately recovered. Families who once dreamed of miraculous rescues now simply hope their loved ones’ remains are recovered soon, before the ocean does much more damage.
At first, I was just very sad, but now it’s like an endless wait, said Woo Dong-suk, a construction worker and uncle of one of the students. It’s been too long already. The bodies must be decayed. The parents’ only wish right now is to find the bodies before they are badly decomposed.
The pace of recovering bodies has accelerated in recent days, since divers finally succeeded in entering the vessel. There were 104 confirmed fatalities as of early today.
After the bodies are pulled from the water, police and doctors look for forms of ID and take notes on the body’s appearance, clothing and any identifying physical marks such as moles, said a Health Ministry official who was helping coordinate the effort and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The bodies are transported to Jindo island, about an hour’s boat ride away, as rescuers notify families waiting at the port, or at a gymnasium where many are sheltering. Bodies without IDs are described to officials in Jindo, who relay the details to the relatives.
Only two pieces of news can be delivered here, and each is heartbreaking. Your loved one is dead, or still missing.
It is mainly the parents of teenagers living through this. About 250 of the more than 300 missing or dead are students from a single high school, in Ansan near Seoul, who were on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju.
Bodies are being identified visually, but family members have been providing DNA samples in case decomposition makes that impossible.
The families, and South Koreans more broadly, have at times responded with fury. The captain initially told passengers to stay in their rooms and waited more than half an hour to issue an evacuation order as the Sewol sank. By then, the ship had tilted so much it is believed that many passengers were trapped inside.
At a Cabinet briefing Monday, President Park Geun-hye said, What the captain and part of the crew did is unfathomable from the viewpoint of common sense. Unforgivable, murderous behavior. The comments were posted on the website of the presidential Blue House.
Park said that instead of following a marine traffic controller’s instructions to make the passengers escape, the captain and some crew members told the passengers to stay put while they themselves became the first to escape.
Legally and ethically, she said, this is an unimaginable act.
The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, and prosecutors said Monday that four other crew members have been detained.
On Monday night, prosecutors requested a court to issue a warrant to formally arrest these four people, a prosecution office said in a release late Monday.
The cause of the disaster is not yet known, but prosecutors have said the ship made a sharp turn before it began to list. The third mate, who has been arrested, was steering at the time of the accident, in a challenging area where she had not steered before, and the captain said he was not on the bridge at the time.
Many relatives of the dead and missing also have been critical of the government, which drew more outrage Monday with the resignation of Song Young-chur, a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.
Song, chief of the Regional Development Policy Bureau, reportedly tried to take a commemorative photo Sunday evening of the situation room in Jindo where government officials brief relatives of the missing.
Yonhap news agency reported that one family member shouted, We are a nervous wreck here, and this is something to commemorate for you?
Blue House spokesman Min Kyung-wook said the government accepted Song’s resignation as a warning to others, as he has raised public resentment by trying to take commemorative photos without understanding the feeling of the families of the victims and lost persons.
The search effort on Monday included more than 200 rescue boats, 35 aircraft, 13 fishing boats and 641 personnel, mostly coast guard and navy.
Lim Son-mi, who works at a daycare center in Ansan, said some part of her still hopes that her daughter Park Hye-son is alive, no matter how unlikely that would be. Until then, and maybe after, she will be haunted by memories of their last conversation.
She called me from the ferry and said, Mom, everything is so strange. We’re all wearing life jackets,’ but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I thought it was nothing. I found out only later from the news that it was this serious, Lim said.
I should be the one who should die.