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As Sewol crew is scorned, young worker hailed as heroine

By Madison Park and Stella Kim, CNN
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
  • More crew members have been charged in the Sewol sinking incident
  • But survivors tell of a young crew member who helped students get life jackets
  • She refused one herself, witnesses tell South Korean media
  • Students weep outside Danwon High School, where many remain missing
Ferry divers: No air pockets found

Incheon, South Korea (CNN) -- The number of crew members charged is rising, and so is the anger that families feel.

But there's one crew member they are leaving out: Park Jee Young, 22, who by witness accounts helped passengers escape and distributed life jackets -- one after the other to students -- as the stricken ferry began to sink.

When she ran out of jackets, she ran to the next floor to grab more.

New questions about ferry crew's response
Passenger made ferry's first distress call

When she was asked why she wasn't wearing a life jacket, Park said that crew members would be last and that she had to help others first, according to witness accounts to South Korean media.

Park's body now lies in a funeral home in the city of Incheon.

She is one of the more than 100 people dead; 215 remain missing.

The other day, a man with injuries to his head showed up to the funeral room where Park's memorial stands.

When asked by Park's family who he was, the man said that he had been injured in the ferry and that he was "indebted" to the young woman who placed a towel on his bloody head and helped him as the water rose.

"She was so responsible and so kind," said her grandmother, Choi Sun Dok, 75, who sat on the floor, slumped against a wall, no longer able to stand. Her family members kneeled with her, holding her hand and weeping together on the floor.

White mums and lilies, which signify death, poured in from strangers, covering the hallway leading to her memorial room. The flowers contain messages like "We will not forget your noble spirit." "We will always remember your sacrifice." "Hero." An online petition has gone up urging the government to award her a Good Samaritan award.

Her relatives say Park wanted to stay in college, but she felt responsible for supporting her family after her father passed away two years ago. So she dropped out and joined the ferry company in 2012. She was transferred to a bigger ship, the Sewol, about six months ago, because she had proved her capabilities, her relatives said.

The Sewol's sinking has left many appalled by the alleged actions of several members of the crew -- including the captain, who now faces a series of criminal charges for his role in last week's sinking.

Post-it notes pile up in front of the sign at the gate of Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea.
Post-it notes pile up in front of the sign at the gate of Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea.

"This is so unfair that our Jee Young had to die while the captain ran away," said her aunt, who declined to give her name. "Jee Young was so responsible, and the captain just ran away."

Over two-thirds of those on board were students on a high school field trip, many of whom remain missing.

Flowers for Sewol crew member Jee Young Park pack a hallway at the funeral hall in Incheon, South Korea.
Flowers for Sewol crew member Jee Young Park pack a hallway at the funeral hall in Incheon, South Korea.

Students grieve in hometown

Judith Ambe grieves for friends missing after the Sewol incident at Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea.
Judith Ambe grieves for friends missing after the Sewol incident at Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea.

The students attended Danwon High School in Ansan, a leafy suburb of Seoul.

The high school is missing most of its sophomores, and classes are to resume Thursday.

Those who are not students, teachers or parents were not allowed on school grounds to allow those to grieve privately. Well-wishers milled outside the school gate, writing Post-it notes and signs with messages of hope and encouragement. "Brothers and sisters, please come back," one read.

Judith Ambe, a local college student who knew about 10 of the missing students through her church, stood outside, silently praying.

"I just hope, maybe, they could be found alive," Ambe said, wiping her tears. "I'm hoping God will intervene."

"It feels so empty now," said student Kim Song Kyum, 17. "It's not an environment where you can study now."

Memorial stirs raw emotions for families

Every student there knows someone who has died or gone missing, the teenagers said.

"I want everything to be a lie," high school student Oh Hae Youn said. "When I wake up in the morning, I feel like everything feels right. Then, I realize it's not. I just wish everything was a lie."

See what to do if a ship is sinking

READ: Abandon ship? In recent maritime disasters, captains don't hang around

READ: Students remember vice principal who took own life

READ: Families protest over rescue operation

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