South Korea ferry disaster: Grieving parents consumed by agony and anger

A South Korean relative (right) of a passenger on board the capsized ferry is distraught as she waits for news at a gym in Jindo on April 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
A South Korean relative (right) of a passenger on board the capsized ferry is distraught as she waits for news at a gym in Jindo on April 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

JINDO, South Korea (AFP) - The pin-drop silence as a student's name was read out was broken by a piercing scream of anguished recognition as her shattered parents clutched each other in the cold, harbour gymnasium.

The announcement of the sixth confirmed victim from the sinking of a South Korean ferry carrying hundreds of high-school students came after a night-long vigil for relatives who had travelled to the southern island of Jindo to be near the rescue effort.

The gymnasium where hundreds spent the night on the floor looked more like a refugee camp or triage station, with some overwrought relatives on saline drips after collapsing with nervous exhaustion.

Others huddled together in blankets, seeking some common comfort and exchanging what little information they had about the nearly 300 people still missing 24 hours after the ferry went down.

One father wept silently, covering his face with his hands as his wife tried to console him.

South Korea ferry sinking map

Some like Ms Park Yu Shin, whose student daughter was among the missing, had been able to stay in contact with their loved ones until the last moment.

"She was telling me: 'We're putting on our life vests. They're telling us to wait and stay put, so we're waiting, Mom. I can see a helicopter'," Ms Park recalled, her voice breaking with emotion.

Unable to sleep, some spent the night on the quay of Jindo harbour, staring out to sea as if willing their children back to safety.

"My daughter is out there, somewhere out there in the cold sea," said one anguished mother.

Every time one of the many coast guard vessels involved in the search returned to the harbour, there was a flurry of activity as relatives jostled on the quayside, hopeful of some fresh news.

Pressing the rescue teams not to give up, some said they had received recent text messages from their children trapped in the boat, but their claims could not be verified and there was no official confirmation of any contact with trapped survivors after the boat sank.

Amid the grief and anxiety, their was also a growing sense of anger and frustration.

Anger towards the heavy media presence which many found intrusive, and a reflexive anger with just about any official who turned up.

Many complained that the ferry should never have left the western port of Incheon on Tuesday night because of the foggy conditions.

And there was outrage after survivors recounted how passengers had initially been told to stay in their seats and cabins when the ferry ran into trouble.

When Prime Minister Chung Hong Won visited the gymnasium early Thursday, 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 Mr 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."

Mr Han Young Hee, whose sister was on the ferry with her husband, showed AFP pictures the couple had texted her before the accident.

"This is her posing on the deck with a coffee. They were very excited about their trip," Mr Han said.

"That was early in the morning. There was nothing afterwards. Nothing," she said.

In the gymnasium, volunteers did what they could to comfort the relatives, handing out blankets, instant noodles and coffee, while medical staff tended to those in physical distress.

Small plastic tents were set up at the quay for those who preferred to wait outside.

The desperation for fresh news was tempered only by the fear that it would be the worst news, as was the case when a coast guard official picked up the microphone to announce a sixth body had been recovered.

Then he gave the name and one set of parents' hopes were shattered forever.

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