South Korean ferry victims’ families: ‘Nothing is changing’

Sunken ship in South Korea

JINDO, South Korea — When a ship comes into sight, they come — seemingly out of nowhere, inching closer to the dock. Bleary-eyed, the faces of the families of the missing have become swollen from crying.

They watch the South Korean Coast Guard pull in from the Yellow Sea to a dock flanked by emergency workers and police officers.

This is where the bodies from sunken ferry Sewol land.

They’re watching to see if their loved ones have been retrieved from the sea. So far, at least 33 people are dead.

Several family members of the nearly 270 missing have been watching for clues about their loved ones. Some have resorted to sleeping in their cars, stepping out only when they see the ships arrive. As a fourth day of search brought several more bodies to shore, the parents of the missing found little solace.

“There is no hell like this,” said one parent, who did not give his name.

Located just 12 miles from the accident site, Paeng Mok Harbor has become a refugee camp for the brokenhearted.

It is essentially one street with a few docks and a scattered number of faded buildings — one sign that reads “Beach City.” There is no sun-kissed beach here, just slabs of concrete juxtaposed to the water.

Tents have popped up on the sole street — rows of them have become clinics, pharmacies, cafeterias and drop-in counseling centers for families.

At one of the largest tents at the harbor, family members meet everyday with officials. For days now, they’ve hurled pointed questions at South Korean officials, accusing them of not acting swiftly enough to find their children.

A similar scene unfolded about 19 miles away from the harbor, where Coast Guard officials also provided a briefing at a large gymnasium, which serves as a temporary shelter for families.

“You have no answers!” a man stood up from the audience. “You all are not taking any responsibility.”

The families of the missing had little patience for the officials who told them that numerous divers, ships and aircraft were involved in the search effort. A few yelled that they had heard all this before and that they were tired of the same explanations about poor conditions hampering the search.

“Nothing is changing,” another parent yelled. “What effort are you making? At this pace, it is going to take one, two or three years.”

“We are trying our best. We are sorry,” one of the divers said.

One father stood up in the crowd. He suggested that it was time to make a decision: To continue to use divers or to use the seaborne cranes that have arrived at the site.

If they start using cranes, it means the movement could displace the water and possible air pockets — if any exist. Officials say they must confer with the parents before deciding to use the cranes.

Kim Joong Chil, whose son is missing, says he believes it’s time to lift the submerged ferry.

“He’s inside the sea, if he died,” Kim said of his eldest son. “Either way, the students are in the water and we have to find them.”

His son, Kim Yoon Soo, 18, is missing — one of the high school students heading on a field trip. Kim and his wife gave DNA samples, an effort undertaken by the Maritime Police in anticipation of recovering and identifying the bodies.

Since Wednesday, Kim has stayed at the gym where families sleep on the open floor, on top of blankets in the stuffy gym. They are given towels, toothbrushes and hot meals. Some families sit in circles on the floor eating out of bento boxes handed to them by volunteers. A live feed shows the rescue efforts on the Yellow Sea on a big screen in front of the gym, but not many appear to be watching.

Kim barely glances at the screen. Dangling from his neck is a name tag with two numbers: his son’s grade level (2) and his classroom (3). Here at the Jindo gymnasium, family members wear their children’s name instead of their own.