Denial, anger… and grief in Ansan

ANSAN — It’s hard not to find someone unrelated to the tragedy of the sunken ferry in this town which feels like a giant funeral home.

From banks to government buildings, banners express the hope of residents wishing the return of the missing students in Gojan-dong, the home of the Danwon High School, south of Seoul.

In front of the school, white chrysanthemum flowers are piled up along with countless consoling post-it notes.

Near an apartment complex next to the school, this reporter met a mother and a daughter who are neighbors of one of the missing students.

“I saw them every day on my way to work at this bus stop. They would run to the school worried being late. The images of their laughter, their chatter… (in tears) it still feels like… they’re like all my babies,” cried Kim Jung-sook, 51, a worker of an electronics manufacturing firm.

About the still missing boy, she said he was a cute and shy 16-year-old. “He loved chicken but controlled his craving after recommendations from his parents for his atopic skin. That’s how good a kid he was. I heard he grew up to be able to eat a whole chicken by himself,” she said.

Her daughter, Choi Ji-hyun, 20, a freshman at Baehwa Women’s University said, being neighbors for over 10 years she has been close friends with the missing boy’s siblings.

The last time she saw him was at her part-time work in January 2014, where he came to help for a day.

“At that time we were both shy so didn’t talk to each other. That weighs on my mind now. I should have talked to him more, treated him nicely.”

Choi said everyone in her town is mourning the loss of their loved ones by attending various funerals around-the-clock.

Apart from grief, they had grievances of their own.

“What really angers me is… those kids were the future of our country. If only the captain had instructed them to escape …” Kim said.

“We are offended by the media. They publish offensive news too often which can further traumatize the families. Oftentimes the news is far from the truth we hear directly from the site. Please report objectively,” Choi urged.

‘All I can do is hug’

This reporter met a woman on the street who said her daughter is missing since the tragedy. The last word from her daughter was, “I’ll be back, mommy.”

She said she was at Paengmok Port for the last one week since the disaster, leaving behind her husband and other relatives.

She came back to the town hoping to find her daughter.

“At Paengmok Port, the engines of helicopters and ships are crying. The tree leaves blown by the wind appear as tears in my eyes.”

She said her heart beats and flips at different intensities. Her body is shaking and so is any object she holds with her hands. She has been taking medication for upset stomach, she said.

“Am I dreaming? The sky and the earth are spinning. I pinch myself. I’m in a horror movie.”

“How can I live without her?” she asked.

She said she is still sending Kakao Talk messages to her daughter. “Other folks say the chances are dim but their words don’t register with me.”

In front of the school, this reporter met a girl who is a friend of one of the missing student’s sister. She was coming back from a group funeral at a nearby hospital.

“I don’t know what to say. It’s my best friend’s elder sister. Her parents went to Jindo Island so I slept over at her house to console her,” said Jin Hye-gyo, a third-grader in Danwon Middle School.

Jin said her friend goes through moments of crying and holding back tears while watching TV. She seems to be in great agony but acts like she is fine, she added.

All Jin can do is hug her friend and say, “Everything will be ok. Your sister will be back.”

A man in his 50s who is a local resident and volunteer with the Korean Red Cross said, “Not just our town but the whole city of Ansan is in a state of ‘mental breakdown.’ The shock is felt like domino waves throughout the town because the lost students have friends from kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, churches, hagwon and so on.”

He said despite his efforts to remain cool and calm as a volunteer, watching the parents faint and be hospitalized is enough to make him ill too.

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