Families in agonizing wait following ferry disaster in South Korea

Published: 17 April 2014 15:30 CET

By Francis Markus, IFRC

Dozens of Korean Red Cross volunteers provided hot meals, blankets and whatever comfort they could to families desperately waiting for news of their loved ones – most of them school students – aboard a sunken ferry in one of South Korea’s worst shipping disasters in recent years.

As rescuers battled to find survivors from the multi-deck ferry, the Sewol, which ran aground off the southwest of the country, frantic  family members congregated in a gym near the accident site and in the city of Ansan, close to Seoul, where many of the children came from.

Out of the more than 470 people are reported to be aboard the vessel, at least nine people were confirmed dead, according to Korean media, with 179 rescued but nearly 300 still unaccounted for. The figures given by authorities have changed a number of times, causing additional anxiety and anger among waiting relatives.

Support and comfort

In both places, Red Cross volunteers and staff were on hand to offer support and comfort. “There is a sense of terrible uncertainty and anxiety among the family members waiting for news of their loved ones and we are doing whatever we can to support them through this unbelievably difficult ordeal,” said Juja Kim, Head of the Korean Red Cross’ International Relations Team.

In the gymnasium, turned into a makeshift reception centre, a Red Cross emergency mobile kitchen was providing hot meals to hundreds of family members throughout the night and morning; more than 50 volunteers and staff distributed 500 blankets and various other relief goods.

In Ansan City, Gyeonggi Province, on the outskirts of Seoul, meanwhile, local Red Cross volunteers and staff set up a special centre to support parents of the hundreds of children from the Danwon high school who made up the majority among the ferry’s passengers.

Cause unclear

The vessel was travelling from the port of Incheon to the southern resort island of Jeju when it starting listing severely and flipped over. It is still unclear what caused the accident, which is among the worst since a South Korean ferry sank in 1993 which left 290 people dead.

Bad weather and rough seas have made the task of searching for more survivors even more challenging as the rescue operation headed into a second night on Thursday.