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Hope is fading in S. Korea ferry disaster

South Koreans prayed Wednesday in Ansan for the safe return of missing passengers aboard the sunken ferry.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

South Koreans prayed Wednesday in Ansan for the safe return of missing passengers aboard the sunken ferry.

JINDO, South Korea — “I know you are cold, hungry, scared, hurt down there,” said a well-wishers’ note stuck on a rescuers’ tent on a pier on this island. “My dear, the rope of life is coming your way.”

Such messages sounded more forlorn than hopeful Wednesday, as divers searching the ferry that sank a week earlier off southeast South Korea brought out scores of bodies, nearly all those of high school students, but reported no sign of life inside. With hope of finding more survivors all but gone, some families, as well as the nation, began bidding farewell to the students whose bodies have been recovered. And in an unusual gesture, North Korea sent its condolences.

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In Ansan, a city south of Seoul, students and relatives filed into Danwon High School, which the students had attended. The mourners, some weeping and wailing, laid long-stemmed white chrysanthemums, traditional flowers for funerals in Korea, before an altar in a gymnasium.

On the altar was a row of photographs of students who had been found dead.

Survivors said most of the 325 students on board on a school trip were trapped inside after the crew repeatedly urged them to stay where they were even though the ship was badly listing. Most of the crewmembers, however, were among the first to flee the ship. Survivors have said they never heard an evacuation order.

Politicians, government officials, and citizens lined up at the memorial site to offer their tribute to young lives lost in one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters. The country was gripped by soul-searching over how South Korea, no longer a third-world military dictatorship but a globalized economic powerhouse, could suffer a calamity of this scale.

“These are like my own grandchildren,” said Song Gi-yeon, 84. “This kind of thing should never happen again.”

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Screens on both sides of the altar showed cellphone messages sent from South Koreans nationwide. On a billboard outside, a mother had written, “My beloved daughter and son, I will carry you in my heart until I join you in heaven.”

As of Wednesday, the death toll had risen to 150, as divers recovered more bodies from inside the ship. The officials said 152 people, the vast majority of them students, were still missing and presumed dead. The ferry had been carrying 475 people when it sank.

“The saddest thing about this disaster is that the young students did as the adults told them to, but the adults abandoned them in a crisis and the system didn’t save them,” said M. J. Hwang, a professor of sociology at Korea University, referring to the difficulties young students have in questioning decisions by their elders in the Confucian and hierarchical South Korean society.

Grief and condolences, as well as anger, swept online communities of this highly wired nation. This week, a spontaneous campaign started online, with thousands of Facebook and Twitter users posting messages of condolences for the students, many of them venting anger at the government and the ferry’s crew and owner for not preventing the disaster.

North Korea sent its condolences through a hot line at the truce village of Panmunjom on the border, the Unification Ministry of the South said. The North’s Korean Central News Agency confirmed that the message had been sent. Seoul did not immediately respond.

The exchange of condolences between the two uneasy neighbors is not unprecedented. The North sent one in 2003 when an arson attack in the South killed 198 people. The South reciprocated in 2006, when the North suffered extensive flood damage.

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