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Questions, bravado, panic aboard sinking Korean ferry

SEOUL — As a ferry with 476 people was badly listing off the southwestern coast of South Korea two weeks ago, one of the students on board asked, “Are we becoming a Titanic?”

“This is fun!” another shouted, apparently not realizing that the ferry would soon capsize and sink.

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In the background of videos recovered from the cellphones of passengers aboard the ferry Sewol, a voice can be heard over the ship’s intercom urging students and their teachers to stay put, telling them they are safer where they are.

But as the ship continued to tip and the voice over the intercom repeated the same instructions, panic spread. Some passengers apparently sensed the approaching doom, and sent farewells to their families.

“This looks like the end!” a boy shouted into at a smartphone held by one of his classmates, Park Su-hyeon.

Before he could finish, another boy cut in: “Mom, Dad, I love you.”

The young passengers were among 325 second-year high school students on board the 6,825-ton ferry, which sank April 16.

‘This is by far the most heartbreaking scene I have seen in my 27-year broadcasting career.’

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After Su-hyeon, 17, was found dead, the police returned the boy’s recovered personal items to his family, who discovered the video footage on his phone. This week, his father, Park Jong-dae, released the video, saying that South Koreans must watch it to learn what went wrong.

Prosecutors in South Korea now say that a ferry captain told investigators that the owners of the sunken ferry had ignored his warning that the ship shouldn’t carry too much cargo because it wasn’t very stable.

The captain was not on board the ship on the day of the sinking because he was on vacation. Instead, the ferry was piloted by a substitute captain, who’s been detained along with 14 other crew members.

A stability test report in January showed that the ferry became less stable after a modification more than a year ago that involved adding more cabins in some of the ship’s floors.

Divers have recovered 212 bodies from the wreckage. They again fought strong currents and floating debris inside the ship today as they searched for 90 passengers still missing.

Among the text messages, photos, and video clips that have been produced by passengers of the ill-fated ship, Su-hyeon’s 15-minute footage bears the most dramatic witness to the panic and fear, as well as youthful naïveté and optimism, of the students trapped inside the ship.

“This is by far the most heartbreaking scene I have seen in my 27-year broadcasting career,” said Choi Seung-ho, a veteran television producer, when he introduced the footage on Newstapa, a website run by the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism.

The footage was edited to blur the faces of the students, and the students whose voices were captured were not identified. But the videos show how students who followed the crew’s instructions were trapped while many of the crew members, including the captain, were among the first to desert their vessel.

Su-hyeon’s video begins at 8:52 a.m. April 16. That was three minutes before the ferry sent its first distress signal.

“The ship is leaning!” one passenger can be heard saying.

“Help me!” another said, sounding almost as if it were part of a youthful prank.

As students felt the ship shudder and wondered whether it was sinking, a crew member was heard on the intercom, urging students to stay put.

“Nonsense!” one student shouted. Another said: “I want to get off. I mean it.”

Some of the male students appeared to hide their growing fear with jokes and uneasy laughs. One student said, “We are going to make news with this.” Another said, “This is going to be a lot of fun if we get it onto our Facebook.”

At 8:57, as another announcement from the crew advised “please never move,” one student said: “Should I call Mom? Mom, this looks like the end of me.”

After a 2½-minute break, the video resumed at 9:00, when at least one student could be heard saying he was getting out. Students began passing one another life jackets.

One student gave his life jacket to a classmate who could not find one.

“What about you?” the classmate asked.

“Don’t worry,” his friend responded. “I will get one for myself.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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