Confusion, anger as sunken ferry's relatives wait

Apr 19 2014, 18:22 IST
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SummaryThe informal briefing by a South Korean coast guard rescuer started calmly enough

The informal briefing by a South Korean coast guard rescuer started calmly enough. He stood on a stage in front of relatives of those missing from a sunken ferry, explaining how divers trying to find their loved ones are hampered by poor visibility and can venture only so deep.

Less than an hour later, Saturday's meeting had unraveled. A few dozen relatives rose from the gymnasium floor and surged toward the stage, hurling rapid-fire questions _ and a thick, rolled-up wad of paper _ at the officials, who stood mostly silently, their heads bowed. One man tried to choke a coast guard lieutenant and punch a maritime policeman, but missed.

The exchange illustrated how relatives of about 270 people missing have grown increasingly exasperated and distrusting of South Korean authorities, in part because of confusion, early missteps and perceived foot-dragging. For days, they have dealt with shock, fear and bewilderment. They have briefly been buoyed by new ideas about how to find survivors, changes in death counts and the number of missing _ even rumors of contact with trapped relatives _ only to be let down later.

The mood in the gymnasium on Jindo island where hundreds of relatives are waiting for word about their loved ones is generally a somber calm. People murmur to each other or sit silently, staring at the screens that show pixellated footage of ships, rescue rafts and yellow bobbing buoys. Some relatives busy themselves with folding blankets or tidying the spaces they've been living in. Some walk around looking dazed or weep in a friend's embrace.

They're getting help for many needs. Volunteers set up charging stations for cellphones and distribute food and drinks. First aid officers take care of those who have collapsed from exhaustion and grief, hooking them up to glucose intravenous drips. Police have set up a tent where some relatives have given DNA samples, in case they help identify bodies later.

But the seeds of distrust were planted Wednesday, the day the ferry sank with 476 people aboard, 323 of them from a single high school in Ansan. Thirty-two bodies have been recovered, and 174 people survived the disaster.

The high school initially sent parents text messages saying all of the students had been rescued.

Lee Byung-soo, whose son was aboard the ferry, was relieved by the text. He called the maritime police to ask whether there were enough life jackets for all of

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