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Memories and traces of students lost in South Korean ferry disaster

By Jethro Mullen and Judy Kwon, CNN
updated 3:07 PM EDT, Fri April 25, 2014
  • A whiteboard carries descriptions of bodies recovered from the ferry
  • One student had a pimple and wore braces; a girl had a flower-shaped belly ring
  • A high school has lost most of its junior class in the sinking of the Sewol
  • Signs of mourning are everywhere in the neighborhood near the school

Jindo, South Korea (CNN) -- Jin Woo-hyuk had a pimple on his forehead. He was skinny and wore braces.

When divers found the teenager's body in the submerged ship, he was wearing a pair of jeans and a light green hoodie.

The simple, human details about Woo-hyuk are noted on a whiteboard, which catalogues descriptions of the bodies recovered from the sunken ferry Sewol.

Some of the victims, still unidentified, are known just by a number.

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No. 63 was a female student with a flower-shaped belly ring and Adidas sweatpants.

No. 62, another girl, had a long pony tail and wore black rosary beads.

They were among the 325 students from a South Korean high school on board the ferry that sank April 16, making up two thirds of the passengers of the ship.

Only 75 of the students were rescued. The remaining 250 are dead or missing.

'Big brother, you have to live'

The students attended Danwon High School in Ansan, a city about an hour's drive south from the capital, Seoul.

The school has lost the majority of its junior year, as well as a dozen teachers. Signs of mourning are everywhere in the surrounding neighborhood.

Yellow ribbons are tied to the school gate, symbolizing hope and solidarity with the dead and missing students' families.

A shrine of flowers and hundreds of notes to the dead decorate the school's entrance.

"Big brother, you have to live, you have to come back," read one note.

"I want to see you," another read. "I love you and pray for you."

Many of the messages from other students expressed regret at not being able to help their classmates on the ferry that was traveling from the port city of Incheon to Jeju, a southern resort island, when it began to list and then capsized.

'It all hurts too much'

Funerals of students have been taking place in recent days. Before the ceremonies, the hearses have driven into the school grounds for one last visit, a portrait of the dead teenager carried by a person in the passenger seat.

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The trauma of the ferry disaster has affected local residents.

"I feel my heart is being ripped up," said Ryu Chang-ryul, who has lived near the school for nine years. "For three days I haven't eaten. It all hurts too much."

Kim Young-sook runs a small restaurant near the school. She dressed in black and wept as she spoke with CNN, explaining that students are regular customers.

She played a video of a 17-year-old boy she said was like a son to her.

"He used to call me auntie," she said. "He was sitting here playing guitar talking about just how important this trip was to him. I feel so bad that I could not be there. All of us, we could have done something."

Students return to school

A makeshift memorial has been set up in a nearby basketball gymnasium, where hundreds of people file past a wall of flowers in which dozens of photos of dead and missing students are mounted. As well as local visitors, people have driven down from other cities like Seoul to pay their respects.

The school reopened Thursday, but only for students in the final year. About 100 psychiatrists and support staff from across South Korea were on hand to counsel them. Some of the teenagers arrived in hoods or wore caps to cover their faces as they made their way past journalists.

Mental health care professionals will be available to the students for at least two months, said Dr. Kim Hyun-sook, head of the community mental health program in the region.

"Koreans, when they experience trauma, they feel anger and sadness but they tend to bottle it up," he said. "We're trying to encourage emotional communication to let those feelings out."

A mother's pain

The parents of the dead and missing, meanwhile, cling to photos and videos of their lost loved ones.

Christine Kim taught English to some of the students. Her youngest daughter, Billy, was on board the ferry.

A video on Kim's cell phone shows Billy hula-hooping while wearing a dalmation costume -- a fun-loving teenager.

Billy got her boyish name because she loved goats when she was little, her mother said.

Last week, Kim looked out to sea from Jindo and called for her daughter.

"It's mom!" she cried out at the waves. "It's mom!"

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CNN's Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong, and CNN's Judy Kwon reported from Jindo. CNN's Ashley Fantz, Kyung Lah, Andrew Stevens, Steven Jiang and Frances Cha contributed to this report.

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