World / Asia-Pacific

Classmates celebrating 60th birthday among missing

By Youkyung Lee in Mokpo, South Korea (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-18 07:14

Kim Jeong-keun woke up on his cabin bed to find out his friends had smeared lipstick on his face while he had been asleep, a prank harking back to their school days.

The 60-year-old Kim took it in good spirits and washed his face. After all, they were traveling together on a reunion voyage aboard The Sewol, celebrating their birthdays and remembering good old days from their elementary school in Incheon, where the ferry departed on Tuesday evening.

Within hours, the 17 former schoolmates were fighting for their lives as the multistory ferry began to list. Only five of them, including Kim, have been rescued.

"We gathered once every three months. When we met last time in March, somebody suggested a trip to celebrate our 60th birthdays to Jeju," Kim said from a hospital in Mokpo, where he was being treated for a fracture in a rib bone.

In South Korea, as in many other countries, 60th birthdays are often celebrated as a milestone in one's lifetime.

"We wanted to make some memories with old friends," he said, recalling the lipstick prank and the funny characters his buddies drew on his arms while he was sleeping. One of his friends took a picture of him and sent it to him on a mobile phone, but it too was lost as the ferry flipped on one side and sank in cold waters.

Twenty people have been confirmed dead, and about 270 are still missing. There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students on an overnight school trip to Jeju, a tourist island. They were from Danwon High School in Ansan, which is near Seoul. Kim's group came from Incheon Yongyu Elementary School.

For Kim, who works in the food business, it was his first sea journey, and his first big trip since he traveled to China on a plane a decade ago.

He said that his 12 missing buddies were like brothers and sisters to him - they've remained close for about 50 years, meeting regularly, making plans together and carrying their childhood friendship into old age. They had been planning a much bigger overseas trip in the fall, this time with their spouses.

Associated Press

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