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Ferry death count at 104

One by one, coast guard officers carried the newly arrived bodies covered in white sheets from a boat to a tent on the dock of this island, the first step in identifying a sharply rising number of corpses from a South Korean ferry that sank nearly a week ago.

Dozens of police officers in neon green jackets formed a cordon around the dock as the bodies arrived Tuesday. Since divers found a way over the weekend to enter the submerged ferry, the death count has shot up. Official said Tuesday that fatalities had reached 104.

Families, meanwhile, wait in anguish for word of their loved ones, trying to piece together small clues written on a white signboard, before finally getting enough information to make a positive identification.

When Lee Byung-soo saw his 15-year-old son's body in the tent he knew he was dead, but he wanted so much for him to be alive.

"Stop sleeping!" the truck driver yelled as he hugged Lee Seok-joon. "Why are you sleeping so much? Daddy will save you!"

He pumped his son's chest and blew into his mouth to try to resuscitate him, "but I could only smell a rotting stench."

This is the kind of heartbreak that awaits the families of about 200 people still missing from the submerged ferry Sewol, or at least those whose relatives' bodies are ultimately recovered. Families who once dreamed of miraculous rescues now simply hope their loved ones' remains are recovered soon, before the ocean does much more damage.

"At first, I was just very sad, but now it's like an endless wait," said Woo Dong-suk, a construction worker and uncle of one of the students. "It's been too long already. The bodies must be decayed. The parents' only wish right now is to find the bodies before they are badly decomposed."

After the bodies are pulled from the water, police and doctors look for forms of ID and take notes on the body's appearance, clothing and any identifying physical marks such as moles, said a Health Ministry official who was helping co-ordinate the effort and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Lee Seok-joon arrived as Body No. 41. The official description bore few details: a boy. Mole on forehead. Wearing a pair of Adidas track pants.

The bodies are transported to Jindo island, about an hour's boat ride away, as rescuers notify families waiting at the port, or at a gymnasium where many are sheltering. Bodies without IDs are described to officials in Jindo who relay the details to the relatives.

At the dock, bodies are taken to a white tent for another inspection, then transported by ambulance to another tent. A coroner there cleans up the bodies, mostly to wipe off oil and dirt and straighten limbs, and then the families file in.

Two pieces of news are delivered here, and each is heartbreaking: Your loved one is dead, or still missing.

After reading the description of Body No. 41 on Saturday, Lee Byung-soo thought it couldn't be his son. He had a mole, but it was near his eyebrow, not on his forehead. Then another student's parent told him it probably was Lee Seok-joon, and he "rushed like a maniac" to the tent.

The sight of his son brought Lee to his knees. He later lashed out at a military doctor who was in the room removing Lee's son's clothes for further inspection. "Don't touch my son!" he said. "He's still alive!"

In truth, it was a grim sight. Lee said Monday, as he escorted his son's body home by ambulance, that his right eye had completely decayed.

It is mainly the parents of teenagers living through this. About 250 of the more than 300 missing or dead are students from a single high school, in Ansan near Seoul, who were on their way to the southern tourist island of Jeju.

The captain, Lee Joon-seok, and two crew members have been arrested on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, and prosecutors said Monday that four other crew members have been detained. On Monday night, prosecutors requested a court to issue a warrant to formally arrest these four people, a prosecution office said in a release late Monday.

A transcript of ship-to-shore communications released Sunday revealed a ship that was crippled with indecision. A crew member asked repeatedly whether passengers would be rescued after abandoning ship even as the ferry tilted so sharply that it became impossible to escape.

Lee, 68, has said he waited to issue an evacuation order because the current was strong, the water was cold and passengers could have drifted away before help arrived. But maritime experts said he could have ordered passengers to the deck — where they would have had a greater chance of survival — without telling them to abandon ship.

The Canadian Press

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