“Guys, let’s take a class picture!”
One of the students shouted to his friends with a big smile on his face. A group of students turned around with arms around each others’ shoulders, and gladly started to look for a photo spot.
The students all looked delighted. Maybe they were a bit tired as they all had to leave home so early in the morning, but they were excited to go on their first high school field trip. The students got together on the dock, shouting out each others’ names to make sure everyone was joining the picture. It was April 16, 2014 in Jinju, South Korea. It was a nice, balmy spring day, just another ordinary day in April, when the sophomore class of Danwon High School was leaving to Jeju Island for a trip. It was the day when 400 students, 50 faculty, and 100 passengers boarded the Sewol Ferry without realizing what they would face for the next 24 hours.
It was about time for passengers to finish boarding the ferry. Nothing seemed to be wrong so far. The students were overjoyed to be on such a huge ship; some started hanging out in their friends’ rooms, while others went to the cafeteria on the first floor. Music spread loudly on each floor. Students were talking to each other with excitement, and teachers also found places on the ship to relax. Everything seemed perfect.
Someone on the second floor found water seeping onto the floor. It first looked like a water leak in the corner that didn’t seem to be a big deal. However, after a while, a couple of students on the same floor found out that more water was coming into the ferry from the outside. It was not only the water that started to threaten the passengers; the ferry started to tilt. It didn’t take long to realize that the ferry was capsizing, with more than 400 passengers, mostly 18-year-old teenagers, on board. Frustrated, a number of students reported what was happening on the boat to sailors, teachers, and people outside the ferry. They called the crew members through the intercom in their rooms, sent text messages to their parents, and even called 911 to let the police be aware of what was happening in the middle of the East Sea.
“Good afternoon, passengers.” A single voice from a crewman spread out to the entire ferry through speakers in the midst of the confusion. “Our ferry is having a minor technical problem. We’re trying to get things settled down shortly. Please be seated and do not move around.” A short pause followed the announcement. People were all shocked; they couldn’t believe how the crewman could dismiss the problem as a ‘minor technical issue’ when the ship was tilted almost 40 degrees, and water was about to fill up the entire room where students were in.
“Should we just ignore him and try to get out of the boat?” one of the students shouted. “I mean, maybe he knows what’s going on. You know it’s always best to follow what the adults say. Let’s just follow instructions.” Reaching the conclusion that attempting to escape from the ferry by themselves would lead to much more danger, students decided to follow the instructions and remained in place, waiting for someone to come.
Now the ferry was almost completely tilted sideways, and objects toppled over, injuring people and blocking their way out. People started to wonder why not a single rescuer was coming even after they reported what was happening a million times. Passengers were desperately grabbing the bars on the walls not to drown into the water and protect themselves from shelves falling down. A girl who was probably too shocked to cry finally burst into tears; she turned on her phone that was almost out of battery to give her mom the last call.
“Mom.. please.. answer me,” she spoke in a wining voice. “I’m so sorry that I have been a terrible daughter. I just wanted to let you know that I love you so much.”
After hours of suffering and frustration, students finally saw twelve rescuers breaking through the window to save the 400. Yes, twelve rescuers from a local diving center. There was absolutely no national coast guard from the government. There were only twelve divers when there were hundreds of passengers about to face death inside the completely capsized ferry. The windows were almost impossible to break as they were facing a large amount of pressure. The rescuers tried hard to find hidden exits and drag passengers out of the ferry, but all they could save was 40 students who were on the upper floor. Passengers on the lower floors who were the first to drown did not even have a chance to be saved.
Articles about the incident were finally released, and the media was soon flooded with reports of divers pulling body after body from the wreckage, and the list of names of passengers who were found alive, dead, and injured. It was thirty minutes later that the government finally sent groups of national coast guard to try to save the passengers. However, they were too late. Now their job was mostly not to save the victims, but to drag out the dead bodies. Parents of the passengers arrived in the island of Jinju to see if their daughters and sons had been saved, already dead, injured, or still missing. The entire sea was now flooded with tears and agony after the disastrous incident.
Two days later.
While the national coast guard continued their work of pulling body after body from the ferry, families of the victims started to ardently protest against the government and the owner of the ship. They wanted to learn the truth of what had really caused the disastrous death of hundreds of young souls.
“Why didn’t the government send the coast guards right after the incident was reported?” “Where was the captain of the ship when the ship started sinking?” “Why did only 12 local divers come to save the passengers?”
There were millions of questions to be answered. What was unveiled by the media was shocking: people found out that when the ferry started to sink after taking a sharp turn off the Southern coast of Korea, the captain immediately ran away from the ferry alone with the help from the Korean Coast Guard, leaving hundreds of passengers. While hundreds of innocent people were about to face death, the captain, who was supposed to be the most responsible for the incident, saved himself before anyone else. Such news stirred a public outcry, making people ask for a sincere apology from the captain and the government who tried to so easily get away with their responsibilities.
Meanwhile, there were still parents in a camp on the coast near the sinking ferry. With their children still missing, they were waiting for the reports from the divers who found dead bodies.
“A corpse of a girl in Addidas jeans, a yellow shirt, and Nike sneakers was just found,” someone shouted, and three parents who thought she might be their daughter rushed outside the camp to see the dead body. Soon, one of them confirmed that she was her daughter, embraced the dead body, and wailed. It was a complete nightmare. People all knew that there was no hope that their children would return alive as almost a week had passed since the incident. However, parents had the hope that a miracle would happen.
Then there was me, watching the heartbreaking news on the TV with my mom, wondering how it would have been if I been one of them. What if I had been one of the teenagers who left home as usual in the morning, excited for a field trip, and got on the boat without knowing what was coming? What if I were one of them who was extremely frustrated, but had to calm down and wait until someone reached out as the instructions said? It could have been me. It could have been anyone. While such endless chains of thoughts deeply saddened me, I was also outraged by the fact that what happened was not just a single accident, but rather symptomatic of a wider malaise in the country that reflects the defect of a security system, and the inability of the government to handle such a large scale accident. I felt unsafe living in a place where anyone, including myself, would not be able to be protected even when I stuck in a tilted ferry.
In the following days, thousands of teenagers across the country reacted to the incident, showing solidarity with the victims. A number of youth started a worldwide movement with yellow ribbons that offered hopeful messages to the Korean public that the missing passengers could still be found alive. I was one of those who went out to the public square in the center of Seoul with a yellow ribbon on my shirt, praying for the students who fought between life and death in the ocean. We all felt sorry for the victims, and promised them that we would be actively engaged in politics to prevent any further accidents. Yellow ribbons were hope. They were hope that we could make a safer place where the nightmare on Sewol would never happen again.