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South Koreans mourn teen hero who made first emergency call from ferry

By Andrew Stevens, CNN
updated 10:36 AM EDT, Sun April 27, 2014
  • Choi Duk-Ha, 17, made first emergency call as South Korean ferry sank
  • While other students called their parents, Choi's decision to call 119 saved lives
  • Choi was one of 325 kids from his high school aboard ferry; only 78 survived
  • South Korea's prime minister has resigned over handling of ferry disaster

Ansan, South Korea (CNN) -- They came to pay their respects to a young man who saved the lives of many but who lost his own.

After two days of official mourning, the funeral of Choi Duk-Ha, the 17-year-old student who first raised the alarm that his ferry was sinking, was held on Sunday.

His call to emergency services gave rescuers a precious few extra minutes to get to the stricken Sewol and get passengers off as it is listed dangerously before capsizing and sinking off the coast of South Korea on the morning of April 15.

Duk-Ha made that call at the expense of calling his own parents. They never heard from him again.

"My boy was pure in heart. He was so innocent. It was probably only nature for him to have called 119 first," his mother Kim Sang-Hee said.

Wearing a black mourning hanbok, Kim and her husband Choi Sung-Woong have led a traditional three-day funeral, which ended Sunday morning with a service at the Ansan Catholic cathedral. Hundreds of friends, community leaders and well-wishers passed through the funeral home in the city of Ansan to offer prayers and to light incense as nuns and friends sang prayers for the departed.

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Kim and Sung-Woong are still trying to come to terms with the loss of their youngest child and only son.

Duk-Ha was one of 325 students from Danwon High School who boarded the ferry bound for Jeju. Only 78 returned.

"He was unusually excited and incredibly happy to be going. I was so happy because he was, so I bid him farewell in the morning wishing him a good trip but it ended this way. My heart is broken," Kim said.

On that fateful Wednesday morning, emergency services received a call from Duk-Ha saying that the ferry was sinking. It was a full three minutes before the vessel's crew alerted the emergency services. He is being hailed as a hero in South Korea for saving lives with that call.

"I was so surprised when I heard about Duk-Ha making that first call," his father said.

"We were wondering why he was not calling us when most of the kids were calling their mums and dads when the accident happened. It was not until later when we heard from the media what he had done. He has always had leadership qualities. Now I am very proud of him. Although he made a sacrifice he saved many lives."

Their faith helps the pain of such a devastating loss.

"My Duk-Ha has done many good deeds. We believe God brought Duk-Ha to this life for this purpose," his father said.

As happens so often in tragedies like this, some of the ferry survivors have felt guilty to be alive when so many others are not -- but Duk-Ha's parents had a poignant message for them.

"It breaks my heart to think about the suffering that all the children went through. My child has gone to heaven but the children who survived must grow up to be adults. I want them to overcome the pain and move on and live a full life for their sake and for the sake of the children who did not make it," said Kim.

Her husband added: "I am past the point of hating or blaming anyone. I hope that we can let that go."

The local government has asked the state if Duk-Ha can be buried at the national cemetery, which honors political and military leaders and citizens who gave their lives to help others. His parents say they don't yet know where his final resting place will be.

For the next few days his cremated remains will lie at the Ansan gymnasium, a temporary memorial site, where thousands of local people continue to pay their last respects to the lost sons and daughters of Ansan.

READ MORE: S. Korea PM resigns over ferry response

READ MORE: Ferry disaster's toll on S. Korea's national psyche

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