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Korean ferry tragedy: Brave acts remembered with gratitude and survivor guilt

As the cold water swirled dangerously into the South Korean ferry Sewol some people put aside their fears to ensure others would survive. It took until April 21 for their stories to start to emerge.

Some people alive today are remembering those who contributed to their safe rescue.
Photo by Handout/Getty Images

Oh Yong-seok, a 57-year-old helmsman, said he and four crew members worked from nearby boats to smash windows on the sinking ferry, dragging six passengers stuck in cabins to safety. They worked tirelessly until someone asked them to head to land.

With tears in his eyes Oh told media that it breaks his heart to watch news of rescue attempts from a hospital room, where he's being treated for an injury to his foot. He's tormented over the likely deaths of children who are about the same age as his own.

"We did hard work, but no media are talking about that," he said. "Instead, they say all crew members fled."

Ahn So-hyun told the media that she received a cell phone call from her husband as the ship began to sink. A crew member, Yang Dae-hong is still missing and presumed dead. "His last words to her were, `I'm on my way to save the kids."' She knew he was referring to the 323 high school students on the ferry.

Passengers are relating tales of bravery from the crew who felt they were only doing their jobs. Passenger Koo Bon-hee told the AP that there were not enough life jackets on the third floor where he and others waited. The four crew members nearby chose not to wear any so that all the passengers could have one. It is not known if they are part of the still missing crew.

Witnesses told Yonhap news agency that 22-year-old crew member Park Ji-young, a cafeteria worker, told students that crew members must stay on the ship until everyone else leaves. She assured them that she would follow after helping her passengers. She worked to calm the frightened students and passed out life jackets, not saving one for herself.

"Park pushed shocked passengers toward the exit even when the water was up to her chest," one passenger reported. Ironically Park was among the first bodies to be recovered hours later.

Kim Jong Hwang, a 58-year-old survivor, also remembered Ms. Park's evacuation efforts. "When the ship turned upside down, passengers were put on a door with one of them falling through it. Park dragged the passenger out of it and pushed others out of their quarters," he said.

Some of the students are also being acknowledged as heroes. Jeong Cha Woong, a 17-year-old student, died after helping his friends escape from the ship. He even gave his own life vest to his drowning friend and then jumped into the water to rescue others.

Nam Yun-cheol, a 36-year-old teacher of Danwon High School, also died while trying to rescue his students. As the ship started sinking, Nam went downstairs to the cabins to gather them up. "I saw him throwing life jackets. That was the last time anyone saw him alive," said an unnamed student in his class. The teacher’s body was found on Thursday morning.

Other passengers are also being hailed as heroes, sometimes without even knowing who they saved. Lorry driver Eun-su Choi told the BBC: "We were trying to pull them (the students) up... but it was very difficult.” He then told about his friend who saved a six-year-old girl after she had been passed out of harm’s way by her parents and other passengers, hand to hand, from inside the ferry.

He said the parents and passengers, who did not survive the ordeal, were "the bravest people of all". He later watched them all be swept away by the water.

Mr. Kim Hong Gyeong, a 59-year-old survivor, made a 10 meter-long rope with curtains from the ship and used it to save the lives of some 20 people. He then boarded a fishing boat that volunteered in the rescue operations.

Shin Young Ja, a 71-year-old woman, survived the disaster. Now in the hospital nursing a broken back she is wracked with survivor's guilt. "How could it be that an old woman like me survived and all these young people are still in there?" she says. "It's such a shame." To add to her guilt, she was traveling with four friends whose names are not on the rescued list.

Shin was rescued by a young man who wouldn’t give up on her. When the ship became to tilt she was thrown against the wall and “stacks of people” slid close to her. As the water began to rise she ignored the pain shooting in her back, put on a life vest and swam across the room toward some furniture.

That was when her rescuer noticed her and clutched her hand. "Hold on to me tightly!" he told her. She tried to climb up on the furniture but was too exhausted by then.

"I can't hold on," Shin recalls telling him. He wouldn't give up and on his third try he pulled her up. That was when a crew member saw them through a window. He broke the glass and pulled them both to safety.

She spoke briefly to the young man on the rescue boat. She doesn't know his name, only that he's from Gimpo, an area in the capital Seoul. Her family wants to find the man "even if we have to put up placards around neighborhood."

"I'm grateful. I want to thank him. I want to buy him a meal at least or hold his hand or give him a hug.”

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