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Ferry accident: Woman, 71, survives because stranger wouldn't give up on her

By Madison Park, CNN
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
  • Shin hasn't heard from the friends she was traveling with
  • She too wouldn't have survived if a young man hadn't helped her
  • She wants to find and thank him

Mokpo, South Korea (CNN) -- Tethered to an IV drip, 71-year-old Shin Young Ja lies under a thin fleece blanket, nursing a broken back and wracked with survivor's guilt.

"How could it be that an old woman like me survived and all these young people are still in there?" she says. "It's such a shame."

Shin is one of 13 survivors recuperating at the Mokpo Hankook Hospital.

She hasn't heard from the four friends she was traveling with on board the passenger ferry Sewol when it capsized in the frigid waters of the Yellow Sea on Wednesday morning.

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Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300. Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300.
South Korean ferry sinks
Photos: South Korean ferry sinks Photos: South Korean ferry sinks
South Korean ferry rescue operation  South Korean ferry rescue operation
South Korean ferry rescue operationSouth Korean ferry rescue operation

"I don't think they made it out," Shin says, wiping away tears. "I didn't see their names on the list."

With each passing hour, hopes of finding more survivors have dimmed. By Friday, the death toll had climbed to 28. Rescue workers were scrambling furiously to find the roughly 270 who are still missing.

It's not lost on Shin that she could have been among the casualties had it not been for the determination of a young man who wouldn't give up when she did.

A young man she now wants to find and thank.

A few feet of difference

The only thing that separated Shin and her four friends was a matter of a few feet : where they sat on the third floor communal room of the ferry.

"The only reason I made it out was because I was on the other side (of the room) in front of the TV," she says.

Wednesday morning, after finishing breakfast, Shin sat away from her four friends to watch a soap opera. Then she heard screaming as people on one side of the room started "pouring down."

"Stacks of people" slid down the room as the boat tilted, she says

"So I grabbed onto a railing and they started sliding towards me."

Soon, she was swept along -- like a row of human dominoes.

"Everyone was swept to the one part of the hall."

The ship's announcement blared: "Do not move. Just stay where you are. It's dangerous if you move, so just stay where you are."

"If we don't move and do anything, it's more dangerous!" Shin recalls one of the men in the room say.

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The announcement also advised that everyone put on life jackets.

Then the water came "in a flash."

"I was just sitting there and watching the water rising," Shin said.

Not giving up

Ignoring the pain shooting through her back, Shin donned a life jacket and swam across the room to get to those who sought refuge on top of a cabinet.

She was too exhausted to climb up. A young man noticed her and clutched her hand.

"Hold on to me tightly!" he told her.

"I can't hold on," Shin recalls telling him. She was too exhausted.

But he wouldn't give up.

He grabbed her hand and tried to pull her up. When he failed, he tried again. And again.

On his third try, he pulled her atop the furniture.

A crew spotted them banging against the window. They shattered the glass and pulled them through.

'I am grateful'

She spoke briefly to the young man on the rescue boat. She doesn't know his name, only that he's from Gimpo, an area in the capital Seoul.

Her family wants to find the man -- "even if we have to put up placards around neighborhood," she says.

"I'm grateful. I want to thank him. I want to buy him a meal at least or hold his hand or give him a hug.

"What else can I do?"

READ: How likely is it there are still survivors?

READ: Fake survivor posts add to nation's anguish

READ: Seaborne cranes called in as relatives fear end to ferry rescue operation

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