Yellow Ribbons in the Sea
The night of April 15, 2014, was an exciting day for Suhyun Park. It was the day his junior class of 325 students from Danwon High School finally went on their annual class field trip. It was a South Korean tradition for high school students to go on a field trip before they became seniors. It was seen as a treat given to the kids before they were bombarded with preparations for college admissions. It was towards the end of the school year at Danwon High School and they kept their promise.
Danwon High School was located in a small city of Ansan, South Korea. They were going to travel to Jeju Island, a small but beautiful land closeby. The island is known to be one of the most amazing travel destination, frequented by tourists from all over the world. Jeju Island was a good choice for Danwon High. It was nearby enough to travel without feeling burdensome but far enough to excite those who have never been there. The trip would take a good two hour by plane and 13-15 hours by boat depending on which city port you left from. Ansan was about half way. They opted for the boat route to get to the island and planned a return trip by plane. Suhyun waited days for this night to come and it finally came.
Like all other loving parents, Suhyun’s parents were worried about their son traveling abroad. The school did their part by reassuring them and offering a standard, general safety information class regarding boat and plane travel. However, their worrying wasn’t necessarily because they feared for his safety. This whole traveling process was all done before. Their elder kid, Suhyun’s older sister, did the same routine last year and returned without a scratch. If anything, she had a blast. Their concern had to do more about their baby boy growing up. He was now ready to fly out of their nest.
Suhyun didn’t share his parent’s worry. He couldn’t wait until he finally went. He was excited for a new adventure much needed in his 16-year-old life. His grin would stretch from ear to ear just thinking about it. He thought about all the silly things he and his friends would do. The thought of girls from the other classes he would get to meet made him blush. He shook his head with a sly grin. Though he would never admit these schoolboy thoughts to anyone. He packed his suitcase thoroughly and every minute would laugh sheepishly embedded in his own thoughts. His sister would catch him in the act.
“Are you that excited?” She would tease.
“Hell yeah I am.” Suhyun said with his grin.
Suhyun and his friends were going to aboard a midsized ferry named Sewol. She was a bland looking thing, a color of faded beige with no fuss and frill decorations. She was no Titanic, not in beauty nor capacity but she did her thing — or at least she tried. Sewol was 18 years old, just four years older than Suhyun himself, but she was definitely considered a veteran in ship years. The Sewol ferry had been operating since 1994 when it first started as a transport ship for cargo and passengers for a Japanese company called the A-Line Ferry. It was later was sold to a South Korean company, Chonghaejin, in October 2012.
After being officially registered under the company, Sewol underwent several modifications from October to February that same year. The reason mainly being for it to serve more cargo and passengers than it previously was allowed to. After the modifications, Sewol’s passenger capacity was increased from 804 to 921, and her weight was increased by 187 tons. By the time she was ready to leave that night in April, she weighed 6,285 tons. She carried 46 rubber lifeboats,124 cars, 56 trucks, and 1157 tons of cargo along with the 476 passengers excited to see the island of Jeju.
It was past 6:30 PM and Suhyun wondered why the ferry hasn’t left the port. The kids were all scattered together with their luggage by their side. The night was a cold night and all of the kids looked like they were cut from the same cookie cutter. They all dressed in thick down fur parkas with heaps of layers of clothing underneath. Spring and Fall were heavenly in South Korea but Winter was a mean one and April was still in its winter stage. It was just barely touched by the warmth of Spring. The students were almost hot though.Their energy was burning through their clothes. Kids were chattering excitedly among their group of friends. Many were on their cell phone, texting and taking selfies.
There was a thick fog in the air that particular night in Incheon. That could’ve been the answer to Suhyun’s question. After hours of casual groans and merry complaints, the ferry finally sailed two and a half hours after their estimated departure time. The kids cheered on. Finally! They thought. It was time to leave. Though their start was delayed, the excitement wouldn’t die down.
Earlier that morning, Suhyun sat at the dining table in his small but cozy apartment home. He rubbed his tired eyes that were half asleep. He couldn’t sleep much from the excitement. Suhyun had a long bucket list. One of the things he wanted to do was travel the world alone. Though Jeju exactly wasn’t the world, and he was exactly traveling alone he was thrilled nonetheless. It was the start of something new. A new chapter in his life. A new line crossed off his list, well sort of. That’s all that he wanted.
His sister, who was a year older than him, went last year and ceased to stop bragging of how much fun she had. He had to listen to her for the whole year. And now it finally was his turn. He couldn’t wait to have his own adventure. He couldn’t wait to brag about his trip too. His best friends Sungho and Donghyuk and Soonyoung was going to be there too. Only things teenage boys could think of clouded his mind– fun and mischief.
One thing did hold him down. He was slightly worried about his new pet fish. He just had gotten it and he felt it was too soon to part with. His sister reassured him that she would take care of it while he was gone. Even though she always teased him, she was the one person he knew he could trust. Suhyun went back to his room, took a moment, and looked around. His guitar, piano, the synthesizer was spotlessly clean. He made sure he cleaned it every day but today they looked even more pristine. Though he knew they weren’t going anywhere, being apart with them was a little heart aching. Music was his life. Becoming a renowned jazz pianist was on his bucket list too. One day at time Suhyun, he would tell himself. He closed the door, grabbed his suitcase, and left for Incheon Port.
On the bright early morning of April 16, 2014, many things happen at once. Most passengers on the Sewol ferry came down to the cafeteria for breakfast. The main captain of the ferry, Captain Lee, left his place at the helm without notice, putting shipmate Park in charge. Park was annoyed but there wasn’t much he could do. The captain had the authority to do whatever on his ship. Whatever that might be, Park sarcastically thought. Captain Lee returned a couple minutes later just to instruct his co-captain Cho to steer the wheel in his place. Lee then disappeared into thin air once again. Cho, who had little experience, was nervous but knew better than to defy orders. Cho took Lee’s orders and enacted her role as co-captain. She put two hands firmly on the wheel and assumed responsibility. Here we go, she thought and she hoped for the best.
Back in the decks, the students have scattered around. Those who weren’t in the cafeteria for breakfast were oversleeping in their bunks. The early bird students were mingling around the deck after they finished eating. The time was reaching about 9 AM when Suhyun, who was near the decks outside noticed something was off. The ocean seemed to be lopsided. How strange, thought Suhyun. He quickly took out his phone without a second thought to take a picture. It would a be a cool shot to share later on. There were two other girls there in front of him. One with long hair and one with short. He wondered who they were for a short second but his attention went back to the slanted water. At that moment they all looked out into the sea, heads slightly cocked to the side, and thought the same thing. How strange.
Shipmate Park was monitoring the radar and radio at the helm when he caught a panicky feeling in his stomach. They just entered the Maenggol Channel, which was notorious for its strong underwater currents. Park felt a sort of a knot. His breath stopped short and started to break out a sweat. Around 8:48 AM, Park came to believe that another ship was approaching in its collision course. Park gave two orders to Cho to turn the ship. “Turn the ship!” Park barked. Cho listened to Park’s orders. Lee was nowhere to be found. Frantically, Cho turned the wheel to the right 140 degrees first. Cho then immediately turned the wheel 145 degrees in the other direction the next.
Maenggol Channel’s harsh current was exacerbated by the weather conditions by the thick fog from the previous night. The fast undercurrents necessitated that turns needed to be smaller than five degrees at a time. Cho went over and beyond the crucial physics. Cho’s hope was crushed. Things were not going to be okay. By 8:50 AM, only two minutes after Cho’s steering, Sewol was leaning 30 degrees to port. The ship started to lean to the side. Captain Lee then rushed to the helm, half naked, and disheveled. “Notify the coast guard. Now!” Sewol was capsizing and it was capsizing fast.
By 8:52 AM, one of Suhyun’s classmate, Duk Hwa Choi, made the first emergency distress call to the national emergency service center. He alerted that the Sewol was capsizing and they needed to come rescue them. He told them they were near Jindo Island. The center connected him to the nearest fire station in Jeollah-namdo, the province in which Jindo Island was located. The station then redirected him to the coast guard in Mokpo. Finally, the coast guard ensured Duk Hwa that they would send rescue operations as soon as possible. Duk Hwa notified his friends and teachers. The guards said they would come for them. So they waited.
Nobody really panicked at first. Kids were almost laughing it off. It could’ve been bravado or naivety but mostly it was because of trust. The trust of authorities. The trust they put in the coast guards to come rescue them. The trust of Captain Lee’s calm and collected order to stay put. Just minutes after Duk Hwa’s distress call, Captain Lee announced through the intercom and told everyone to stay put. Put on your lifeguards and stay put. It’s dangerous. Stay where you are. Don’t move and stay put. So that’s what Suhyun and his classmates did. They were inclined to listen to authorities. That’s how they were brought up. Defying authority was the worst type of disobedience in Korean culture. So all the kids buckled on their cheap, plastic red lifeguards and listened to his orders. They stayed put.
One of Suhyun’s classmate, Dong Hyub Kim, took out his phone to record the situation. He sternly threatened to send this video to all the major news broadcasting stations to report this negligence. How can this happen in this day and age? He exclaimed. We are going to sue the company responsible, he threatened. At this point the ship was 50 degrees tilted over. Suhyun took out his phone. He needed to record this too. He had to show his parents how crazy this was. A boy yelled, “Get me off of here!” Another one half heartedly laughed and said, “I can’t believe this.” Another one cried, “Help us! please..”
The kids who were with Suhyun all held on to the corner of the side where the ship wasn’t in the water. They didn’t know where the other kids were nor whether their teachers were okay. It was as if gravity didn’t exist. The kids nervously cracked jokes. The intercom made it’s last announcement. Stay put. It is dangerous stay put. Then there was no more voice from the intercom. There was no more laughter from the kids. The students started to text their families and friends. One girl said, “Only if we can make it out alive.. I love you mom and dad.” A boy said, “Dad..Dad..Tell my sister not to go on her junior field trip.” Students in a group chat told each other, “Sorry guys. I love you guys.” At last Suhyun said, “We don’t want to die. Dad… I don’t want to die.” That was the last of Suhyun’s recorded video.
By 9:40 AM the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries declared this accident to be the highest state of emergency. Families and friends of the students trapped in Sewol all came together waiting for rescues to be done at Jindo port. The long hard day soon morphed into another cold April night. The freezing breeze pierced through the lonely waves, reaching the shores as it touched the cheeks of hundreds of families and friends who sat there, just waiting. Some were up and cursing, some were down and hysterically crying. Others just silent. The remaining silhouette of the ship seemed so close and yet so far away.
Everyone’s perspective were the same. They were all looking out into the sea, the ferry now only half visible, looked like a stump of tree that floated in the water. That was the excruciating part. Knowing their kids were trapped in there. Like a slow motion film roll, in the minds of mothers and fathers they replayed their children’s memories. Their laughter, their cries, their anger. They were all so beautifully alive just the day before. Suhyun’s father, Jong Park, did the same. He was angry. He was crying. He had hope. He remembered so clearly of Suhyun at the dining table glittering with excitement the morning before he left. Suhyun was going to make it out alive. He knew his son would.
As if mother nature joined in the sadness, she expressed her anger as rain poured down hard. The parents shared the same felt of rain that bounced off their plastic raincoats. They shared the same pellets of pain bouncing from the inside. There kids were no where in sight. Though so many bodies were huddled together in that small area, the radiating body heat couldn’t expand to warm anyone’s heart. Everyone remained cold.
It was the fourth day since Sewol capsized and yet not everyone was rescued. Rescue operations were told to be put to a stop. Government officials release a press statement that said there wasn’t much hope to go inside. It wasn’t verbally said out loud but everyone knew the fate of these innocent kids. Can they still be alive? Time was running out and hope was thinning out. The mere question of fractured faith was the answer to the question. At this point in time many had lost hope of seeing their kids alive. Families just wanted to collect the bodies from the abandoned ship as soon as possible. They wanted to hold the body of their child before the corpse swelled and deteriorated from the long exposure under water. As each day and hour passed, the death toll rose and bodies started to decay.
A big white board stood in the middle of the port among the people and the news crew. On it had names and names of students who were on the ferry and who were yet to be rescued. Each time a body would surface, parents would rush to see if it was their child. When the identity of the body was confirmed they would cross out a name on the board. It was slow and painful process. A true morbid death of a name. Some parents were said to be lucky to have received the body of their child early on. At least they were able to recognize their own child before saying goodbye. Why couldn’t they just collect the bodies? Where was the continuous rescue operation? Why was this happening? What is the government doing?
These were questions nobody could answer and no one gave. Not the news outlets that were reporting on this incident around the clock. Not the vague press releases from the government who changed their statements every time. Not the grieving tweets and texts from the worried citizens around the world. Nobody could give an answer.
Rain poured harder. People didn’t bother to move from their spots on the shore. If their kid was in that cold water, rain was nothing short of a nuisance. “She’s my daughter.” A mother showed a picture of her daughter on her cellphone to a reporter on standby. “She’s in heaven I know, but just give me her body.” She cried into the filming camera. “I’m not asking to save her life…but doesn’t she deserve a proper burial when she’s still recognizable? When she’s still this pretty?” She looked down as she wiped off the raindrops off her smiling daughter’s face glowing on the phone screen. People stood around her, behind her, next to her in silent camaraderie. They were all asking the same question on behalf of their daughters and sons. The camera replied in silence. The reporter couldn’t say anything. Again, there was no answer. Everyone all turned their sight back to the dark waters of Jindo. All to be heard was the weeping of the rain and the crashing of the waves.
The total death toll on Sewol ferry was 304. The numbers included crew members, other passengers, Danwon teachers but mostly all students from Danwon High. Duk Hwa Choi, the boy who first made the distressed call didn’t make it. Dong Hyub Kim, the boy who threatened to release his video didn’t make it. Suhyun’s friends Sungho, Donghyuk, and Soonyoung didn’t make it. The two girls Suhyun who he captured in the morning didn’t make it. Suhyun, who recorded the last living video of the students aboard, didn’t make it. They all obeyed the orders of the captain who told them to stay put and they didn’t make it. The same captain who told the kids to stay put made it. He was the first to jump ship right after all communication got cut off. He didn’t follow his own orders to stay put so he made it. He was one of the 170 people who survived the disaster and their sole reason to make it alive was because they didn’t stay put. The bad kids who defied authorities made it out alive. The good kids who listened died.
A mass memorial service was held for all 300 students of Danwon High at the Hwarang Public garden near Danwon High School. The picture frames were covered with flowers still freshly cut from their stems. In each frame were faces of familiar. All bright faced, eager for life, and too young. These kids were once nervous for their school picture. These kids smiled goofily for the camera. These kids put on a poker face to appear cool and nonchalant but blushed as soon as the shutter flash clicked. These kids thought these pictures would be in the yearbook. These pictures were now used for their funeral. These picture frames were laid out side by side covering the whole wall of the garden’s auditorium. Rows and rows it went on and on. Names and faces of kids just sitting still. Lifeless. Too many too count. There shouldn’t have been that many.
The phrase calm before the storm doesn’t apply to Jong Park. Once the storm came there was never going to be a calm to remember. Jong stood behind the rusted metal steel barriers near the shore. His stocky frame seemed small and frail. Thousands of yellow ribbons were tied around the barrier poles, dancing with the wind. Yellow ribbons became the memorial symbol for the lives lost on Sewol. Jindo Port seemed more lonelier than ever. All the families and friends who were camped out had retreated and were long gone. Jong was standing there alone. Jong looked out into the deep abyss of the green waters. He couldn’t help but to feign a weak smile. He had noticed the glimmering of the sea. It was as if it was smiling back. It reminded him of Suhyun and his glittering eyes at the dining table. The last memory he had of him. The sharp scent of salt and wet tears swirled around his nose. This was the only place he could come and feel comforted. This place was his son.
Dear My Son,
It must be so cold and dark there. How you must’ve been so afraid.
I prayed for the worst to not happen. How I prayed and prayed.
Yet it came to that. Dear my son, The time has come to say goodbye to everything.
It is time for you and I to say goodbye, as well as to the string of hope I couldn’t let go. Forgive me. Farewell.
– – On the day my thin strand of hope turned into a day of eternal agony, a no good father wishes his last words to his son he will forever miss.