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In the Absence: South Korea’s Sewol Ferry Disaster | Witness

A disaster began to quietly unfold at 8:49am on April 16, 2014.

The Sewol ferry, bound for Jeju Island in South Korea, began to sink. On board were 476 passengers, including 325 students on a school trip. Mobile phone footage records students struggling to stay on their feet in their cabins, the atmosphere calm but uncertain.

Dashcam footage showed cars sliding across the car deck as the ship tipped.

A passenger had made an emergency call at 8:52am, and through radio communications the authorities were notified. The ferry continued to sink.

A single patrol boat arrived and the captain escaped the ship at 9:47am. No one had called for the passengers to evacuate.

Over the coming hours, the rescue operation never intensified – not when passengers wearing life jackets began to jump ship, not when the ferry tipped entirely on its side, and not when it sank so that only its prow remained above water.

More than 300 people, mostly school children, had lost their lives.

In the aftermath, a group of civilian divers came to assist the coastguard’s rescue efforts. For months they retrieved the bodies and belongings of victims. Public protests – and calls for justice from the victims’ families – would also help driving the removal of President Park Geun-hye in 2017.

Using phone and dashcam footage, recordings of radio communications, and the accounts of survivors, civilian rescuers, and families of the deceased, In the Absence follows the Sewol ferry disaster in meticulous detail, offering an unflinching look at one of South Korea’s great tragedies, and the layers of dysfunction and neglect that led to it.

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