Students on Korean ferry captured sinking on video

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SEOUL, South Korea -- As a ferry carrying 476 people was badly listing off the southwestern coast of South Korea two weeks ago, one student on board asked, "Are we becoming a Titanic?"

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

In 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 as the intercom voice repeated the same instructions, panic spread. Some passengers, apparently sensing approaching doom, sent farewells to families.

"This looks like the end!" a boy shouted into a smartphone held by a classmate, 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. After Su-hyeon, 17, was found dead, police returned the boy's recovered personal items to his family, who discovered the video on his phone. This week, his father, Park Jong-dae, released the video to local news media, saying South Koreans must watch it to learn what went wrong.

As of Wednesday, 210 people were confirmed dead, with 92 still missing. Of the dead or missing, 250 were students on a school trip to a resort island.

Among text messages, photos and videos produced by passengers on 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 video on Newstapa, a website run by the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism. JTBC, a cable channel, also broadcast a shorter version.

The footage was edited to blur students' faces, and students whose voices were captured were not identified. But the videos show how students who followed crew instructions were trapped, while many 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 to maritime traffic controllers on shore.

"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 if it was sinking, a crew member on the intercom urged students to stay put.

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

The video showed no sign of students trying to escape. The vessel had tilted so much that some were grabbing railings on the wall to pull themselves up and move about the crowded cabin.

At 8:53, an intercom voice again advised the passengers not to move. "What? Hurry! Save us!" a student shrieked.

One student said, "This is fun." Another wondered, "Are we going to die?" A minute later, as the ship listed further, some students suggested donning life jackets. An intercom announcement again instructed passengers to stay where they were.

At 8:55, as the ship crew sent the first distress signal, one student in the cabin below shouted, "We don't want to die!"

The ship's captain and crew later told reporters and investigators that they had thought it was safer for passengers to stay in their cabins than move in a panicked mass, causing the ship to list faster, or for them to jump into cold waters when the first rescue ships were still far away.


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