Park Ji Yoon hadn’t wanted to go on her high school’s trip to the South Korean resort island of Jeju. She hated riding on ferries.
When she called the grandmother who had raised her, more than 12 hours after the ferry had departed with her and more than 300 classmates on it, the girl’s voice was shaking.
The two had spoken 90 minutes earlier, said Kim Ok Young, 74. Ji Yoon said then that the ferry hadn’t yet reached Jeju.
This call was different.
The ship was sinking, Ji Yoon said.
“Grandma, I think I’m going to die,” she said. “The ship is sinking and I’m holding onto the rail.” Then the phone disconnected.
Kim reached her granddaughter one more time, she explained as she waited at the auditorium of Danwon High School in Ansan for word.
In that call, Ji Yoon said only “I have to go,” then the phone cut off. At 10:09 a.m., she sent a text with a single Korean character, one that conveyed no meaning. Since then, nothing.
A list of names was posted on a large whiteboard at the school. Those who were accounted for were highlighted with a colored marker. Ji Yoon’s name wasn’t.
“Two days before she was heading off on this trip, she told us that she didn’t want to go because she didn’t want to travel on a ferry,” said Kim, wearing a brown coat and red-framed glasses. She had raised the girl because Ji Yoon’s parents worked. “We told her that she would regret it if she didn’t go. Now we regret it. We shouldn’t have made her go.”
Almost 300 people are missing of the 462 on board the “Sewol,” the South Korean government said, with nine confirmed dead. The ferry sank en route to Jeju; local media including YTN TV reported it had sailed into rocks in foggy conditions. Of the 325 students, in their penultimate year of high school, and 14 teachers, about 80 were accounted for by late afternoon, the notice at the school showed.
On the fourth floor of the school, crowds of relatives and friends of those on the ferry clustered in the auditorium. Several expressed anger at the school and the government for the lack of information, almost 11 hours after the ferry began to sink. Televised news of the disaster played on a large screen overhead.
One parent tore a piece off the list of names, prompting school officials to remove the board and replace it with a list of those who were hospitalized.
Students from other schools, the same age as those missing, also crowded into the auditorium to await news. They placed post-it notes on the desks of their friends.
Danwon, a public school, was founded only in 2005, meaning that many of the students had done their elementary studies elsewhere. There were 388 students in the class, almost all of them on board. The school will be closed today and tomorrow, its website said.
Lee Jae Eun had seven friends from elementary or middle school on the ferry, none of whom were on the rescued list. She nervously held up her phone as she went through their pictures, her hands shaking as she flipped through them one by one.
“I know some of them from elementary school and some from middle school,” she said. “This was their last trip before entering the last year of high school.”
Korean Red Cross volunteers from the Ansan area, where the school is located, arrived late in the afternoon and began preparing rice, cup noodles, snacks, drinks and coffee. Donations of mobile phones, chargers and blankets were arriving.
Volunteer Won Jong Suk, 59, said the Red Cross workers probably would stay at the school for as long as 10 days.
“My heart dropped when I heard the news,” she said. “We all have children and I am sad this happened to our neighborhood.”
As the day drew to an end, many of the waiting parents left to make the six-hour bus ride to Jindo, the closest land point to the site of the sunken ferry. The buses were provided by the school. One uncle, Park Yong Woo, 48, said his nephew, Kim Soo Bin, was on one of the rescued lists. His parents are in Jindo but haven’t found Soo Bin yet, he said.
“We can’t trust the list and statements from the school or the government until we see him face to face,” he said. “Different departments are releasing different names and information. Soo Bin’s parents were crying when I spoke to them on the phone because they haven’t yet found him in Jindo.”
Park Ji Yoon’s parents also went to Jindo as soon as they heard about the ferry, grandmother Kim said. They took dry clothes for their daughter.
To contact the reporter on this story: Heesu Lee in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stuart Biggs at email@example.com Anne Swardson, Peter Hirschberg