By Yen Hyoung Cho
Families, teachers and fellow students gather by the dock to commemorate the unexpected nightmare that happened a year ago, all repeating words of sorrow, grief and regret— “I’m sorry”. Sorry they could not save them, protect them and sorry they are the ones who survived. A year has passed since the Sewol ferry incident, an event no one was prepared for and shook the Korean media. But the whiplash of the grief has yet to die down, leaving many unable to move on with their everyday lives.
On the morning of 16th April 2014 the South Korean Ferry, Sewol, capsized while carrying 476 passengers. Of the 304 passengers on the boat only 172 managed to escape, leaving the remaining passengers in the cold ocean; of which were mostly secondary school students from Danwon High school of Ansan. Even with fishing boats, Republic of Korea (ROK) navy ships and coastguards on the scene, the rescue mission did not go as planned. Many of the passengers were told to remain inside the cabins of the ship, leaving them trapped in the capsized boat, while the captain and 14 crew members jumped off from their sinking deathtrap and into the safety of the rescuers. Because of the cold waters of early spring and the strong currents, attempts to free the trapped passengers were not easy, only managing to recover lifeless bodies back to their awaiting families. On April 17 2015, as part of commemorations for the victims of Sewol, 4,475 people participated in the commemoration titled ‘The Saddest Challenge in the World’ for the Guinness world book record.
Seasons have flown by since that day, but the boat still lies in the ocean unmoved— with only the government’s announcements of planning to raise the Sewol ferry. The crowd and candle flames at the Gwanghua-Mun plaza once filled with angry protestors have died down to simmer, with people occasionally visiting the place to pray for the loss of the victims and their families. Even after months of effort made by coastal guards, 9 bodies have yet to be returned to their families; relatives pray for their lost family members to be returned to them so they can rest in peace. For the survivors and the relatives of the victims, time seems to have stopped for them as they have yet to recover from the horrors of that day. Many of them have yet to accept the tragedy, unable to move on with their lives. Surviving students remain traumatized; some carrying the burdens and dreams of their deceased friends, some unable to return to their school and choosing to transfer to a different area. The empty seats of the classrooms remind teachers of how they lost many of their students that morning to one fluke accident that should have not happened. Many of them visit the dock periodically to mourn for their friends and family members, in hopes that they will sleep in peace.
Although, the spark of the accident has died down in the country, to these people it is still a reoccurring nightmare that brings new misfortune to their everyday lives. On May 8, 2015, officially known as ‘Parent’s day’ in Korea, the father of one of the student victim was found to have hung himself. According to his family, May 8 was not just parent’s day but also his deceased daughter’s birthday— the bonding day for parent and child have reminded him of his treasure he could no longer protect. This extreme way of evading grief is not an uncommon route of escape for many. Over 55% of the people involved in the incident (mainly relatives of the incident’s victims) have urges to end their own life; accompanied by other problems such as anxiety, despair and lethargy. This whiplash of losing a loved one so unexpected will remain in their hearts for years to come, and possibly to their graves.
The aftershock of losing a loved one is not confound within national borders. Not all, but those who have felt it, understand how fragile and precious their mundane life can be; and how it can go from happiness to utter chaos in a matter of seconds. Recall the Tohoku Earthquake, the tragedy no one foresaw and changed the lives of thousands. Over 15,000 deaths reported, leaving many people family-less, homeless and the nation in tears. Consider the recent aviation accidents, or the earthquakes that shook Nepal into rubbles. The pain of such a tragedy can be understood by those who have gone through such themselves regardless of nationality, ethnicity or religion— it is a downward spiral no one wishes upon anyone. It is an emotion that is understood globally throughout the world, and perhaps is the only emotion that can truly allow people to understand one another regardless of their difference.
Yen Hyoung Cho is a third-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo.