JINDO/MOKPO/ANSAN, SOUTH KOREA – It was supposed to be their last bit of teenage fun.
The realities of life would descend on the 325 students from Danwon High School, near Seoul, in the next school year in the form of cram time: nonstop study to prepare for South Korea’s notoriously tough university entrance exams.
A four-day field trip to Jeju, a volcanic island whose white beaches and waterfalls lure hundreds of school groups each spring, was the planned distraction. The students would travel on a five-level ferry named Sewol, meaning “time and tide.” More than two-thirds of the passengers were from Danwon, adding a feeling of camaraderie to the adventure.
Ko Hyun Suk, 16, spent the days before the trip shopping for clothes to wear on Jeju. The chance to take a trip for the first time with friends rather than family added to the excitement for the boy and his classmates, Ko’s mother said.
Not every Danwon student wanted to make the trip. Park Ji Yoon didn’t like ferries. She decided to go only after her family said she would regret it if she didn’t, her grandmother said.
Now Ji Yoon and 301 of her fellow passengers, most of them classmates, are among the dead and missing after the Sewol capsized and sank on Wednesday in water cold enough to induce unconsciousness within an hour or two of exposure.
The catastrophe, which first had President Park Geun-hye demanding “zero casualties” and then had her the target of wails and screams from parents angry at the constantly shifting information, has become South Korea’s worst maritime tragedy since 1970, when the sinking of the Namyoung ferry killed 323.
The students’ schedule had the plan laid out to the minute. They were to leave Ansan, where the school is located, at 4:30 p.m. last Tuesday and travel on buses to the port at Incheon, one hour away. They were on time when they boarded the Sewol: a long line of young people, some in gray-and-black uniforms and others in purple-and-white school tracksuits.
The 20-year-old Japan-made ferry was bought by Chonghaejin Marine Co. in 2012. The company enlarged it during a four-month expansion that added another deck, increasing the total capacity by 116 to 956, and adding more room for vehicles. The refit design allowed space for one fewer crew member than before.
Prosecutors are investigating whether the expansion played a role in the sinking by making the ferry unstable.
The student group was led by Danwon Vice Principal Kang Min-kyu, along with 13 administrators or teachers. Others on board included Yang In-seok, 48, transporting cargo to Jeju with three other delivery men. The husband-and-wife team of Hur Young-ki, 45, and Park Eun-kyung, 43, also were delivering cargo, in their case metal components for a construction company. Their truck carrying the material was parked below with the other vehicles.
Among the staff, Choi Chan-yeol, 57, worked in the kitchen. Crew member Oh Young-seok, also 57, was a steersman, authorized to pilot the ship. On the bridge, Capt. Lee Joon-seok, 68, was in charge.
The students were clearly the ones who were the most excited about what was scheduled as a 14-hour trip, clapping their hands in the dining room as news of the impending departure — two and a half hours late because of thick fog and bad weather — came over the loudspeakers.
The nonstudent passengers ate after the students, and Park and Hur noticed an unusual thing. Unlike a previous ferry voyage they had taken to Jeju, there was no safety instruction video showing passengers where to find the life jackets and how to put them on.
“I don’t know if it was just our room but they didn’t show it,” Hur said in the couple’s room in Mokpo Hankook Hospital in Mokpo, the nearest city to the wreckage, on Sunday.
The students had a jubilant evening. Shortly after the ferry sailed from Incheon at about 9 p.m., they took turns dancing the limbo in the lobby on the ship’s third floor. At 10 p.m., all the passengers were invited to watch a fireworks display on the deck at the rear of the ship. It was foggy and windy, Hur recalled.
Entertainment indoors also included songs from two Filipino singers. Then the passengers bunked down in their cabins. Breakfast was at 8 o’clock the next morning, the students fed before the other passengers. Then they went to the game room or took photos with their phones on deck.
An Min-soo, another student on the trip, spoke to his mother by phone at about 8:15 a.m. All was fine. Fifteen minutes later, Park Ji-yoon’s grandmother called her to check on her. They were late, Ji-yoon said, though she didn’t know why.
At about that time, Choi Chan-yeol, the kitchen worker, was cleaning up in the dining hall after breakfast.
The jolt was massive, he said.
“Suddenly everything was falling — all the kitchenware, the chairs, the long microphone that belongs to the singers on board, everything,” he said at the Mokpo hospital on Friday. He spoke in between psychological counseling sessions, treatment for a knee contusion and police questioning.
He was among those confirming that twice, at about 8:30 a.m. and at 9 a.m., an announcement over the ship’s speakers told everyone to don life jackets and stay in their current locations. He ignored the instructions. The ship was listing severely — the floor was becoming the wall, the walls were becoming the ceiling and floor.
“It was scary as the ferry was tilting and water was filling up,” he said. “I found a long microphone cord on the floor that was connected somewhere. I don’t know where, but when I pulled it, it was strong enough for me to hold onto and walk till I reached the door of the restaurant hall. My knees hurt now because there was so much stuff I had to push through.”
The outside world began to learn that something was wrong at 8:55 a.m., with a radio call to navigational-assistance agency Vessel Traffic Services Center in Jeju. It was from an unnamed officer on the Sewol. The audio was supplied by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
“Please contact coast guard. Ship is in danger. It’s listing now,” the caller said.
“Where’s your ship?” the vessel services operator asked.
“Please take measures quickly, please quickly,” the Sewol responded. And later: “Ship has listed a lot. Can’t move. Please come quickly.”
The caller gave the location of the Sewol as next to Byeongpungdo island, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Jeju. The coast guard received the alert at 8:58 a.m., the security ministry said.
The Sewol was then contacted by Vessel Traffic Services on Jindo, an island hugging South Korea’s southwestern coast. The passengers weren’t on lifeboats because of the boat’s angle in the water, the Sewol said in response to a question.
The VTS transcript shows that a ship named Doola Ace was 2.1 miles (3.4 kilometers) from the Sewol at 9:06 a.m. VTS asked the boat to move closer to the Sewol to aid the rescue. Twelve minutes later, the Doola Ace told VTS passengers were not evacuating.
“We cannot move alongside if people don’t evacuate,” the Doola Ace told VTS. At 9:23 a.m., the Doola Ace was “right in front” of the Sewol, waiting for people to evacuate.
“Even if it’s impossible to broadcast, please go out as much as you can and make the passengers wear life jackets and more clothes,” Jindo told the Sewol at 9:24 a.m. A minute later, the operator said: “We don’t know the situation there. The captain should make the final decision and decide quickly whether to evacuate passengers.”
‘So many passengers’
One minute later, the Sewol asked: “If they escape now, can you save them right away?” And then: “We have so many passengers, I don’t think a helicopter can save them all.”
Hur and Park were in their cabin when the jolt came. They had taken the ferry before and had felt the ship shake a great deal at this juncture of the journey. So it wasn’t until a water bottle suddenly rolled across the cabin floor that they realized something was wrong. Park was thrown to the other side of the cabin, hurting her ribs. Hur grabbed onto a pipe.
They both heard the announcement: “Stay where you are. It’s dangerous if you move.” They donned life jackets.
Yang In-seok, the cargo transporter, ignored the order. By 9 a.m., he said, the ship was listing at a 45-degree angle. He bolted up from the third floor of the stern, and even so, got to the deck just in time to see a helicopter hovering overhead. He spoke at an emergency center at a gymnasium in Jindo, one of the closest land points to the sunken ship, wearing a brace on his neck.
Scene of chaos
Steersman Oh Young-seok described a scene of chaos, with the ship’s angle putting the lifeboats out of reach for passengers and crew alike. He wasn’t on the bridge when the ship began to list, so had no explanation for what happened.
“We wanted to help. We know the rule,” he said as he dragged on a cigarette outside the Mokpo hospital during a break from police questioning, dressed in a white hospital gown with an IV drip attached to his arm. “The rule is to help the old and the weak, pregnant women, then passengers, and then we should leave when it appears all have left, and then the captain should abandon the ship last.
“But the vessel was tilting fast, we couldn’t reach any lifeboats. I believe they were all functional, but how can you reach them when you’re walking on the walls already? Tilted to 60 degrees! All 46 of them were functional, I remember getting them checked on Feb. 10.”
Away from bridge
As for Capt. Lee, he wasn’t on the bridge when the problems began, authorities said. The ship was being steered by the third navigation officer, identified only by her surname, Park. She was attempting to steer through a waterway known for rough currents called Maeng Gol Soo Ro for the first time, investigators said. Another helmsman, Cho, was also on the bridge.
The captain returned to the bridge and gave the order for passengers to stay put. Then, prosecutors say, he turned up on one of the first rescue boats to leave the ship. In televised remarks as he was taken into custody, Lee said he gave the order for the vessel to turn, then returned “briefly to the cabin to look after something.” The incident began while he was away from the bridge, he said.
Lee, who faces five charges including accidental homicide and negligence, was flanked by Park and Cho as he spoke. They face three charges, including accidental homicide and violation of maritime law, prosecutor Yang Joong-jin said in Mokpo. The three are being held in custody at the Mokpo coast guard station.
“The announcements to stay on the vessel were issued because rescue boats hadn’t yet arrived,” Lee said. “The currents were extremely fast. The water was cold.
“Even if life jackets were worn, if we abandon the ship without a clear judgment you can be dragged far away,” he said. “I judged that there would be many complications.”
The rescue effort included not just coast guard, navy and other official vessels but a plethora of fishing and other private boats.
Kim Hyun-ho, a 47-year-old fisherman, was at the scene by 10 a.m., 18 minutes after he heard an announcement from his community center speaker on nearby Daemado island saying boats needed to be mobilized.
“I didn’t know where to start,” he said by phone from his home on Daemado, where he fishes for anchovy and exports seaweed to Japan. “I saw people in life jackets on the ferry, which was about 90 degrees tilted and half in the water already, but there were people swimming in the water, too.”
He got about 25 people, mostly students, onto his boat, and transferred them to a larger vessel waiting nearby, he said. The Sewol was “sinking fast. I wanted to get more people out of the water, but my boat is a small one.”
Another Daemado fisherman, Kim Young-min, 50, raced to the scene after receiving a text message from a neighbor.
“It was too frantic to count how many we pulled out of the water,” Kim said by phone. “All I remember was, everyone I pulled out was a kid.”
It was at about this time that Ji-yoon called her grandmother from the ship.
“Grandma, I think I’m going to die,” she said. “The ship is sinking and I’m holding onto the rail.”
Then the phone disconnected. Her grandmother reached the girl one more time, but Ji-yoon said she had to go. The last communication: a text at 10:09 a.m. with a single South Korean character, one that conveyed no meaning.
An Min-soo was luckier. He was on the deck playing with his friends when the ship began to list, his mother said by phone from her home in Ansan, asking that her name not be used.
In the water
He held onto the rail but, a nearby teacher told students to wear life jackets and jump into the sea, which An did, he told his mother. He was in the water for five minutes before a lifeboat rescued him, making him one of the first to be saved. His mother saw his name on the accounted-for list and got a text message from him after 10 a.m. to say that he was safe.
Park, Hur and the other passengers in their cabin barely made it out. After they donned life jackets, water began to flow into the room, eventually blocking the emergency door they could have used if they had been told to evacuate. The only way out was a sealed window, and they weren’t able to break it with a fire extinguisher.
“There was a wardrobe that had life jackets in front of our cabin,” Hur said, wearing a back brace and speaking rapidly. “I took the doors off and took all the life jackets out. We used the wardrobe as a ladder as the water started to rise in our cabin.”
Somehow, rescuers broke the window and told the occupants to jump into the water. Park was lifted into a helicopter; Hur was taken onto a coast guard ship.
Also rescued: Danwon Vice Principal Kang, the leader of the school trip, and student Ko Hyun-suk. Almost all of the 174 survivors were loaded onto boats that came from shore. Coast guard officials are still investigating how many of the 46 lifeboats supposed to be on the Sewol were deployed.
In Ansan, parents learned about the accident from a text sent by Danwon High School at 9:50 a.m., according to a timeline written on a noticeboard at the school. An Min-soo’s mother heard the news from other people because she was at work. Park Ji-yoon’s grandmother also heard it from others.
Danwon chartered more than 20 buses to take parents to the emergency center in Jindo. The parents of Ji-yoon were among the first to make six-hour trip, carrying dry clothes for their daughter.
All the relatives encountered a contradictory, frustrating and ultimately devastating series of communications. Less than two hours after the Sewol began to sink, Danwon school officials said all of their students aboard the ship had been rescued, citing communications with the coast guard. That afternoon, the government more than halved the number of people it said had been rescued, from more than 360 to less than 170.
In Ansan, the school set up a center for relatives in a fourth-floor auditorium, with the Korean Red Cross and other groups serving noodles, rice, drinks and coffee. Televised news played on a large screen at one end of the room. Also displayed was a notice board with the names of students and teachers on the Sewol. As confirmation of their rescues came in, their names were highlighted with a purple or yellow marker. Most names — including Ji-yoon’s — weren’t highlighted.
During the evening, a frustrated parent tore part of it down.
“Two days before she was heading off on this trip, she told us that she didn’t want to go because she didn’t want to travel on a ferry,” said grandmother Kim, speaking at the center in a shaking voice, tears running down her face, her brown handbag lying on the ground where she dropped it. She had raised the girl because Ji-yoon’s parents worked. “We told her that she would regret it if she didn’t go. Now we regret it. We shouldn’t have made her go.”
Teachers at the Danwon center were crying as well as they tried to deal with angry parents. Outside the school, ambulances stood by in case parents needed medical attention.
In Jindo, a fishing and farming island of about 34,000, relatives divided their time between the center at the gymnasium, which also offered television news, refreshments and a place to lie down, and the port itself, 20 minutes’ drive away. There, they gazed into the fog that rendered the rescue operations impossible to see. They couldn’t know until they returned to watch the television news how divers were struggling with poor underwater visibility and strong currents.
“What we wanted to know was what was happening, but no one was responsible enough to tell us,” family member Ma Dong-yoon said Friday, reading a statement prepared by relatives of the missing passengers. “Even at that moment, the kids were probably screaming for their lives in the cold water.”
The area leading to the dock was filled by tent after tent stretching for hundreds of meters providing food, raincoats and other necessities, leaving just enough space for vehicles to pass. Dozens of police officers were standing by.
“Divers, please hurry, hurry,” Park Young-woo, whose daughter, a Danwon student, had taken the trip, said as he stood on the dock, wearing a blue rain slicker. “Don’t rest. Don’t stop. Rotate if you’re tired. Please do your best. All our children would already be home by now if you had done your best.” His wife displayed a video on her phone of their daughter twirling a hula hoop and wearing a cow costume.
Sorrow and sadness were expressed everywhere. Kim Han-shik, the 72-year-old chief executive officer of the ship’s owner and operator Chonghaejin Marine, said in a televised Thursday press briefing that his company had committed a “terrible sin.” Kim Young-bung, another company executive, bowed and apologized on behalf of the company at a separate press conference.
Investigators raided the company’s offices on Thursday to inspect operational manuals and other documents, though no executive had been called for questioning as of Saturday, prosecutors said.
Park and Hur said they can’t stop thinking about the disaster. Their livelihood, in the form of their truck, their tools and the construction materials are gone, and their lives are changed.
“We can’t forget it and we will never be able to,” said Park. “My husband cries every time he talks about this. He can’t fall asleep at night.”
Sewol engine driver Jeon Young-joon, 61, said he feels guilty.
“I really should have searched for some kids. I knew it was an excursion boat, but I was in level three doing my logbook,” he said outside the hospital in Mokpo, smoking. “When I pushed the door open, which kept closing because it was tilted, there was no one in the corridor. I thought I would be one of the last.
“We’re old. These kids had no chance to try anything. I have had my days, at least. The captain really should have done more, much more. Yes, it was one of those moments where fear takes you over, but I’m sure he knew, leaving the ferry, that the kids he told to stay put were still there waiting for his instructions.”
Kang Min-kyu, the vice principal in charge of the group, knelt in front of the families at the gymnasium the night of Thursday with 10 other teachers, not all of whom had been on the ferry.
The next day, he was found hanged behind the gymnasium.
“It’s too much, being alive alone while more than 200 of my students are missing,” he wrote in a note found inside his wallet, police said. “Please place all the blame on me because I was in charge of the trip. Please cremate my body and scatter the ashes where the ship sank. Perhaps I should be a teacher for those missing children in the other world.”