South Korea ferry disaster

Students send messages of fear, love and despair as Korean ferry sank

As Korean ferry sank, schoolchildren aboard sent desperate phone messages to their loved ones, who vent their anger as rescue hopes dim

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 April, 2014, 4:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 4:11pm

Heart-wrenching messages of fear, love and despair, sent by high school students from a sinking South Korean ferry, have added extra emotional weight to a tragedy that has stunned the nation.

Nearly 300 people - most of them students and teachers from Danwon high school in Ansan, near Seoul - are still missing after the ferry capsized and sank on Wednesday morning.

"Sending this in case I may not be able to say this again. Mom, I love you," student Shin Young-jin said in a text to his mother that was widely circulated in the South Korean media.

"Oh, I love you too son," texted back his mother - unaware at the time that her boy was caught in a life-and-death struggle to escape the rapidly sinking vessel.

Unlike many others, the exchange had a happy ending; Shin was one of 179 survivors rescued before the ferry capsized and went under the water.

Others were not so fortunate.

Another student, 16-year-old Kim Woong-ki, sent a desperate text for help to his elder brother as the ship listed violently over to one side.

"My room is tilting about 45 degrees. My mobile is not working very well," Kim messaged.

Seeking to reassure him, his brother said he was sure help was on the way.

"So don't panic and just do whatever you're told to do. Then you'll be fine," he messaged back.

There was no further communication and Kim was listed among the 287 people on board still unaccounted for.

Sadly his brother's advice was similar to that of the crew, who controversially ordered passengers to stay put when the ship first foundered.

Angry relatives said this resulted in the passengers getting trapped when the ferry keeled over, cutting off their routes of escape.

That grim scenario was encapsulated in the texts of an 18-year-old student, identified in the local media by her surname Shin.

"Dad, don't worry. I'm wearing a life vest and am with other girls. We're inside the ship, still in the hallway," the girl messaged to her father.

Her distraught father wrote back urging her to try and get out, but it was already too late.

"Dad, I can't. The ship is too tilted. The hallway is crowded with so many people," she responded in a final message.

Some parents managed a last, traumatic phone call with their children as they tried to escape.

"He told me the ship was tilted over and he couldn't see anything," one mother recalled of a panicked conversation with her student son.

"He said 'I haven't put on the life jacket yet', and then the phone went dead," the mother told the Dong-A Ilbo.

The JoongAng Ilbo published excerpts from a chat room conversation between several students on the ferry.

"Hey guys, let's make sure we meet up alive," messaged one.

"I love you all," responded another.

It was not clear if the students were among those rescued.

At a gymnasium at a sports complex on Jindo island, a land point near the site of the sinking, hundreds of parents waited for news about their children. Many sat on the wooden floor, wrapped in blankets, or lay on stretchers. Some were attended to by medical personnel; ramen noodles and coffee were served on tables outside in the hallway. Just outside the entrance, a television had been installed to broadcast news of the rescue effort.

Amid their grief and anxiety, there was also a growing sense of anger and frustration at the heavy media presence which many found intrusive, and a reflexive anger with just about any official who turned up.

When Prime Minister Chung Hong-won visited the gymnasium early yesterday, his jacket was pulled and water as well as water bottles were thrown at him.

"How dare you come here with your chin up?" one relative screamed at him. "Would you respond like this if your own child was in that ship?"

One mother blocked Chung's path as he tried to leave, saying: "Don't run away, Mr Prime Minister. Please tell us what you're planning to do."

Additional reporting by Bloomberg