South Korea ferry disaster: Boy who raised first alarm had no time to call parents

People hold candles at a vigil for students among the missing passengers of a South Korean capsized ferry, in central Ansan on April 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
People hold candles at a vigil for students among the missing passengers of a South Korean capsized ferry, in central Ansan on April 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - The frightened boy who first raised the alarm that a South Korean ferry with hundreds on board was sinking did not have time to call his parents, his father said, and was found dead not wearing a life jacket.

The boy, known only as Choi, called the emergency 119 number which put him through to the fire service, which in turn forwarded him to the coastguard two minutes later. That was followed by about 20 other calls from children to the emergency number, a fire service officer told Reuters.

Choi's body was found on Wednesday, a week after the sinking, at the back of the fourth deck.

"I was so angry at the reality that all I can do is look at the sea and pray, but I am so grateful that he has been found and he is back," his father told the Kukmin Ilbo newspaper. "If only he had been wearing a life jacket, I wouldn't be this heartbroken... He didn't have time to call his mum and dad... He reported it to 119 (emergency number) and he's back now. I am so proud of him."

The Sewol ferry sank on April 16 on a routine trip south from the port of Incheon to the traditional holiday island of Jeju. More than 300 people, most of them students and teachers from one high school on a field trip, have died or are missing and presumed dead.

The children were told to stay put in their cabins, where they waited for further orders. They paid for their obedience with their lives. The confirmed death toll on Saturday was 187.

Grieving parents were taken by a smaller ferry to the sunken vessel on the day after the disaster, wrapped in blankets against the wind and rain. A witness quoted one mother crying to the sky: "It's my child's tears."

When the smaller ferry reached the scene of the tragedy, the capsized hull obscured by mist, all the parents rushed to the right side of the boat to look, causing it to list, with waves splashing the deck, the witness said.

"Move to the left," a crew member shouted through a loud speaker. "We need to have balance."

The parents responded with cries of "I don't mind dying" and"let me jump in". One woman shouted: "My child is in that cold water." Another mother was berating herself for making her daughter go on the field trip when she didn't want to. She said she would commit suicide if her child's body was found.

"What makes me really mad is... what kind of school leaves for a field trip at 9pm? At night? Is there any school like that in the entire country? Taking 12-13 hours? And they had to wait three or four hours before the boat could leave? I want to kill everyone. There is no meaning to my life anymore," she said.

Captain Lee Joon seok, 69, and other crew members who abandoned ship, have been arrested on negligence charges. Lee was also charged with undertaking an "excessive change of course without slowing down".

Prosecutors have also raided the home of Mr Yoo Byung un, 73, the head of a family that owns the Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, the company that operated the Sewol. They seized another ferry run by the company and found that life rafts and escape chutes were not working properly.

Mr Yoo, a photographer who goes by the name of AHAE, expressed his "profound sadness" at the sinking, said a statement released by Ahae Press, which markets his work. It stressed that Mr Yoo did not have any stake in the company.

"While the Korean authorities investigating the ferry tragedy have issued a travel ban for 30 to 40 officials associated with Chonghaejin ownership, including members of the Yoo family, this blanket approach is standard for investigations by Korean regulators," the statement said.

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