Regrets mix with memories as families recall those lost in South Korean ferry sinking

A bicycle, never ridden. A lipstick prank pulled off by old friends. Mother-daughter conversations that now burn in the memory, laden with regret.

Among the 302 people dead or missing in last week's South Korean ferry disaster, there are a multitude of stories. Here are just a few:



Hye-son's mother, Lim Son-mi, says the 16-year-old wanted to be a television screenwriter. But Lim's wages from working at a daycare center meant she didn't have enough money to send her younger daughter to the writing academy she'd wanted to attend. Her older daughter was already pursuing music and art, tuition for which was not cheap.

"I told her, 'Let's see after your sister is done with her education,'" Lim, 50, recounted.

"I'm so sorry now that I said that. I wish she had been born in a rich family that could give her what she wanted."

Hye-son, who remains missing, was among the 323 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, near Seoul, who were aboard the ferry Sewol on a trip to the southern island of Jeju.

Sometimes she and Lim clashed, as teenage daughters and their mothers often do. But it is painful for Lim to look back on those moments now.

Once, she recounted, her daughter yelled, "I just want to die." Lim, in a fit of anger, responded, "Then why don't you go and die?"

"She liked her dad more than her mom," Lim said, tears rolling down her face. "I've done nothing for her."

In an unusual gesture, Hye-son texted her a few days before the school trip to say, "Mom, I miss you." Lim said she wrote back in jest, "You must be kidding!"

Lim even berates herself for not insisting that her daughter eat a full breakfast the morning she left home the last time. She had a serving of yogurt instead.

"I'm sorry I wasn't a good mother," she said.



Hyun-chul's parents poured their energy, love and attention into their only child, said an uncle of the 16-year-old, Lee Jong-eui. Though an overseas education is often pricey, his parents had sent him to school in New Zealand for a while. It was only last year that he returned to South Korea and started going to Danwon High, where he excelled in English.

He loved baseball and basketball, and Lee would often take him to baseball games. "He's a very positive child. He is not the kind of kid who is shy and can't go out," Lee said.

Hyun-chul, who is among the missing, went to church regularly and had many friends in the community. He would do volunteer work with the church on weekends and during school vacations, Lee said.

Two weeks before the trip, Hyun-chul visited his uncle.

"He was very excited about the trip" to Jeju, Lee said. "We gave him our blessings and told him to have fun and stay safe.

"Now this has happened, I can't believe it," Lee said while sitting at a gymnasium that's been turned into a shelter for the relatives of the ferry's missing passengers. Hyun-chul's parents, Lee said, fainted on the day they were told that their son was missing.

"The boy was all that they had," Lee said.



After Lee Byung-soo, a single father, suffered a serious back injury from a motorcycle accident, he told his two sons not to ride any two-wheeled vehicles — not even bicycles. That didn't stop his 15-year-old elder son, Seok-joon, whose body was recovered Saturday.

The Danwon High School student had been working as a waiter in a restaurant to help out with the family's expenses while Lee, a truck driver, was out of work. He used part of his savings to buy clothes for his father, but he was also saving up for something bigger.

The teenager recently told Lee he wanted to buy a bicycle. Lee advised him against it, fearful that he might get hurt. He said raised his sons with the affection he never had as a child.

"I'm always telling my sons how much I love them. My father used to beat me, so I make sure I never hit my sons," he said.

Seok-joon went ahead and bought the bike, Lee said. But he added, "My son never got to ride it."

It is not Lee's only regret.

"Before the ferry left, we had talked on the phone and I asked my son not to hang around on the deck. Maybe he stayed inside because of my advice," he said.

"All I want is to hold my son's face again one last time so I can say goodbye and tell him we'll be reunited in heaven."



Yang Dae-hong worked on the Sewol as one of the service staff and went out of his way to help passengers feel at home, even ones who had had a little too much to drink, said friend Lee Joung-hwa, who met him six years ago during an event she organized on the ship.

As soon as passengers set foot on the ferry, Yang, 45, would help them up flights of stairs and help carry their luggage or their infants, Lee said. If passengers got drunk late at night, he would bring them meal tickets and help them get to the restaurant so they might sober up, she said.

Yang is among the missing. "His last words were, 'I'm on my way to save the kids,'" said his wife, Ahn So-hyun, recounting the couple's last cellphone conversation. Rescued passenger Kang Byung-ki told the newspaper Kyunghyang Shinmun that Yang helped students put on life vests and escape.

Even though the shifts were long with little rest, Yang was happy with his job, Lee said, and he once told her he wanted to be the best crew member in the country.

Once, she asked him as a joke if he would dive into the water to save a customer who had fallen over. "Of course," he said.

"I firmly believe he is the type of person who would go back to rescue passengers," Lee said. "Although he wasn't saved in the end, he's still a hero to me."



Choi, 24, had applied to join the South Korean air force but when she failed the physical tests, she became a teacher, said her father, Choi Jae-kyu. She graduated at the top of her class in 2013 with a double major in history and English and started teaching at Danwon High School.

She loved teaching, and the students loved her back. She would boast to her parents that her students would come to her office and give her hugs.

"She was very active and wanted to be a good leader," her father said.

Her body was among the first recovered.



Kim Jeong-keun and 16 others were traveling together on a reunion voyage aboard the Sewol, celebrating their 60th birthdays and remembering good old days from their elementary school in Incheon city, where the ferry departed. Only five of them have been rescued.

In South Korea, as in many other countries, 60th birthdays are often celebrated as a milestone, and this group has been close for some 50 years, meeting regularly and making plans together. They had been planning a much bigger overseas trip in the fall with their spouses.

The old friends delighted in playing tricks on each other. On the morning the ferry sank, Kim woke up in his cabin bed to find out his friends had smeared lipstick on his face while he had been asleep, a prank harking back to their school days. His buddies also drew on his arms while he was sleeping.

One friend took a picture of him and sent it to his cellphone. It, too, was lost in the cold waters.