Volunteers quietly help families of SKorean ferry's lost in manifold ways, from cabs to kebabs

The Associated Press

In this April 26, 2014 photo, Buddhist monk, Bul Il offers prayers to wish for the safe return of passengers of the sunken ferry Sewol in Jindo, South Korea. Bul Il came from the southeastern port city of Busan to help the families of the more than 100 still missing in the sunken South Korean ferry. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

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Lee Sung-tae, secretary general for the civic organization, says people 23 or younger are often not allowed to volunteer because of worries they may remind family members, mostly parents of missing high school students, of their own children. Older volunteers who happen to look young are given work that keeps them away from the families of the missing students. Lee said his organization is now asking groups to stay away because there are already too many volunteers.

Kim Byung-jo, 52, and Kim Yong-su, 46, drove 2 1/2 hours from the southern city of Suncheon to clean toilets and shower rooms at a gym where the families, both men and women, sleep on mattresses under bright fluorescent lights.

"It's totally different from when I watched this on TV," said Kim Yong-su, a trailer driver. "I've become really solemn. I can't really express how I'm feeling."

There is a makeshift chapel and a makeshift Buddhist temple.

Donated materials in the gymnasium — peach and pink blankets, bright green jackets and blue vests — add color to the scene, but it is still a place awash in grief and frustration.

Exhausted relatives sit with shell-shocked expressions, staring blankly at the ever growing list of bodies. In tents near the port, they sit on blankets and mattresses, watching TV news programs about search efforts. They eat at long tables and benches under tents in near total silence. The gymnasium holds hundreds of people but is mostly as quiet as a library. Sometimes there are howls of anger when a government official visits or cries of agony when a family identifies a body.

It does not matter to the volunteers that the families do not brim with gratefulness for their work. They want to do more to ease their pain.

Ahn, the cab driver, said the word "heavy-hearted" is not enough to describe what it's like to drive home parents who have just identified their child's body.

"In the five hours of driving there's a complete silence," he said. "Who can say anything in that situation?"

A well-known psychiatrist, Jung Hye-shin, came to Jindo to help counsel families, though she told her nearly 150,000 followers on Twitter that she hasn't talked to any because they're not ready for counseling. But she observed the volunteers in Jindo.

"The Catholic undertaker volunteers were wiping the fingers and toes of the kids, ever so gently and carefully, as if they were bathing a baby," she tweeted of the work to clean corpses. "In the end, the kids became pretty again. I'm glad they met adults that they could be thankful to before leaving this world."

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Choi reported from Seoul. Associated Press writer Gillian Wong contributed to this report.

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