The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

April 21, 2014

Families' hopes for ferry victims painfully humble

About 220 people still missing from the submerged ferry Sewol

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 86 confirmed fatalities as of Monday night.

ID process

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.

Lee Seok-joon arrived as Body No. 41. The official description bore few details: a boy. Mole on forehead. Wearing a pair of Adidas track pants.

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.

At the dock, bodies are taken to a white tent for another inspection, then transported by ambulance to another tent. A coroner there cleans up the bodies, mostly to wipe off oil and dirt and straighten limbs, and then the families file in.

Only two pieces of news can be delivered here, and each is heartbreaking. Your loved one is dead, or still missing.

After reading the description of Body No. 41 on Saturday, Lee Byung-soo thought it couldn't be his son. He had a mole, but it was near his eyebrow, not on his forehead. Then another student's parent told him it probably was Lee Seok-joon, and he “rushed like a maniac” to the tent.

The sight of his son brought Lee to his knees. He later lashed out at a military doctor who was in the room removing Lee's son's clothes for further inspection. “Don't touch my son!” he said. “He's still alive!”

In truth, it was a grim sight. Lee said Monday, as he escorted his son's body home by ambulance, that his right eye had completely decayed.

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.

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