JINDO, South Jeolla Province -- The closest port to the site of the Sewol disaster is Paengmok Port, about 25 kilometers from where the ferry sank in waters off Jindo on April 16, 2014.
On the day of the ferry sinking, the small provincial port was a madhouse.
Beloved children's dead bodies were dragged out of the sea. Mothers cried and fainted in front of them. Reporters rushed after grieving families. Rescue officials shook their heads with no sign of additional rescue.
Three years on, the madness has turned into stillness.
Two bereaved mothers from the Sewol ferry sinking speak to reporters last week in Jindo, South Jeolla Province. Their respective daughters -- Huh Da-yoon and Cho Eun-hwa -- are still missing after the tragedy on April 16, 2014. (Kim Da-sol/The Korea Herald)
“Many people went back to their normal lives. People don’t know that we are still here. We feel forgotten,” said Park Eun-mi, the mother of Huh Da-yoon, one of the four missing students from Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province.
Two teachers and three other passengers -- a father and son and a woman -- are also still missing. They are believed to be trapped inside the sunken ferry.
“Those of lucky families found their children’s bodies within a month or two and left to have funerals. We are so envious of them,” said Park, adding that the uncertainty of whether they will be able to find the bodies haunts the remaining families.
The search operation for the missing bodies officially ended in November that year. About 1 1/2 years later, the South Korean government officially announced the salvage operation of the Sewol ferry.
The name tags of nine missing passengers are seen in front of a model of the sunken Sewol ferry at a memorial altar at Paengmok Port in Jindo. (Kim Da-sol/The Korea Herald)
Kim Seong-hoon, the uncle of Jin Yoon-hee, one of the students from Danwon High School who was brought up to the surface five days after the ship sank, said he could not leave the traumatized families.
“At first we were hoping for the return of our children, but ended up recovering the children’s bodies,” said Kim.
“But then I could not leave the families of the missing Sewol passengers whose lives are now stuck in limbo,” said Kim.
Kim has been supporting the remaining families at Paengmok Port and visitors from across the nation by cooking meals at one of the three steel containers used as a shelter for families there.
For them, finding the missing children’s bodies has become their only reason to live.
“All I want is to become a mother of the victim, not a mother of the missing Sewol passenger,” said Lee Keum-hui, a mother of Cho Eun-hwa, a missing Danwon student.
“I’m her mother. That is why I cannot give up on her. It is actually very difficult since we are now the minority -- nine remaining out of 304,” Lee added.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries was to run a final test Sunday on its plan to refloat the Sewol ferry, but that was pushed back due to adverse weather.
The site of the sinking in the waters off Jindo have the second-strongest tidal current in South Korea.
“Look how calm the sea is from here. But underwater, I cannot imagine how my daughter would look, I hope I can recognize her face,” said Lee.
Without knowing the exact location of the nine missing bodies and the heavy freight inside the sunken ferry, authorities said they need to first precisely analyze the load and forces to lift the ship.
“Just imagine, if you are missing one of your family members trapped inside a ship lying 40 meters down the sea, what would you do first? Find them or continue bitter disputes on whether to cut the ship in half or not?” asked Park, the mother of Huh Da-yoon.
“Things must proceed in order. People should help us fix our broken lives. Our lives have stopped,” said Park.