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[Ferry Disaster] Despair sinks in over Sewol

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Published : 2014-04-23 20:27
Updated : 2014-04-24 15:48

It has been a long, silent week in South Korea since the fateful morning of April 16.

Much of what happened inside the sunken ferry remains unknown, leaving the victims’ relatives, and South Koreans in general, struggling with despair and sadness.

The word “regret” weighs heavily on the entire nation. Many Koreans feel horrified by the helplessness of those on board at the time of the sinking, the utter lack of rescue plans and the actions of the crew members. Worse, the government appears to have bungled its response operations during the critical period right after authorities received a distress call from the ship ― when many of the victims were ordered to stay put in the cabins and wait to be rescued. 
Mourners pay respects to the ferry victims at a temporary memorial altar in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday. An official memorial altar will be installed next Tuesday. ( Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

The nationwide feeling of loss and grief is now affecting the daily lives of many in society.

“I find myself looking at my smartphone every hour, checking how many more bodies were found and how the victims’ parents are coping with the situation,” Shin Ye-sol, a 27-year-old office worker, said.

Shin said many of her friends have changed their profile photos on Facebook or mobile messaging app Kakao Talk to a picture of a black ribbon on a yellow background.

The yellow ribbon picture is part of a campaign spreading rapidly online by those wishing for the missing passengers’ safe return. Under the ribbon, which varies in design, are the words “One small movement, big miracles.”

A crowd of commuters gathered in front of a wide-screen TV at Seoul Station on Tuesday when a news anchor said the death toll had passed 100.

“This is utterly unbelievable,” a senior citizen said, wiping his tears.

Since the accident took place, non-news TV programs such as music shows have been replaced by hours of live coverage on the rescue operation. Concerts, festivals and political events were also delayed indefinitely out of respect for the victims.

Commemorations for the development of science and technology were held as planned on Monday, but in a sorrowful atmosphere ― no loud music, no ceremonial performances.

Speakers at the events gave their condolences to the victims and their families, and hundreds of participants offered a silent tribute.

Many local firms have put scheduled workshops or outings on hold.

“We’re saddened by the ferry disaster and the whole country has fallen into grief. We’ve decided to follow your opinions to cancel the spring picnic planned for the May 10,” read an email sent by law firm Bae, Kim and Lee LLC to its employees on Wednesday.

“It’s a nationwide disaster. I feel like (the students) are my cousins. I can’t stop identifying with them,” said a secretary from the firm, who wished to be named only by her last name Kim.

With fewer people leaving their homes, restaurants and entertainment businesses have lost business, according to industry figures.

Last weekend’s ticket sales for the top five box office films amounted to about 774,000, compared with 1.16 million the previous weekend, according to the Korean Film Council.

Park Soo-yong, owner of a pub in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, said the number of customers has decreased noticeably in the past week and nearly all group reservations have been canceled.

The number of people charged with driving under the influence also went down, apparently due to the atmosphere of collective mourning.

The Jeonnam Provincial Police Agency said there were 176 cases of drunk driving between last Wednesday and Tuesday, a drop of 38 percent from the previous week.

A worker at a golf course in South Jeolla Province told local news agency Yonhap that the number of visitors had dropped about 20-30 percent, and that this week’s reservations were being canceled as well.

Psychiatrists stress that the accident could negatively affect people’s mental well-being.

“(What people see on the news) can result in trauma. People can feel anxiety, depression and sadness, the same as the victims’ families,” doctor Ko Young-hoon of Korea University Ansan Hospital said.

“Being exposed to negative and emotional reports on the news every day could create more stress for teenagers, housewives and people who are emotionally unstable,” an anonymous psychiatrist was quoted as saying by a local online newspaper.

By Suk Gee-hyun (monicasuk@heraldcorp.com)

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