“Field Trip” is still written in big letters on a calendar hanging on Yang Jeong-won’s old classroom wall.
The letters cover four days in April last year and mark one of the highlights of the year — a trip, by ferry, to a southern resort island. The sight still manages to shock Yang, one of the few students to survive a disaster that continues to horrify South Korea.
For many of the second-year high school students, the trip marked a last bit of freedom before nearly two years of grueling preparation for college entrance exams. Teachers and other students waved at them from school windows as 17-year-old Yang and her classmates boarded buses at Danwon High School in the city of Ansan, about an hour’s drive south of Seoul.
Girls sang along to loud music and took selfies as they drove to the port of Incheon. Once heavy fog cleared, the Sewol, a 6,852-ton ferry, set off with 476 people on board, including 325 students and 14 teachers from Danwon.
That night, Yang and her classmates threw a surprise birthday party for a beloved teacher, Kim Cho-won, who turned 26 on the ship. A few minutes before midnight, the students lured Kim to a cabin and greeted her with a birthday cake, a happy birthday song and a picture.
Several hours later, on the morning of April 16, 2014, the ferry listed, flipped upside down and sank. More than 300 people died, many of them students trapped in cabins because the crew ordered them to stay put, even as the captain and others jumped onto an early coast guard boat. As the ship listed, Yang smashed into a wall. Students screamed and called their parents, cabinets falling onto them.
Yang, who had on a life jacket, managed to get to an exit and called out to rescuers, who saved her.
Out of 35 people in the birthday photo, she was one of only eight who lived. The teacher, Kim, didn’t make it.
A year later, Yang still can’t believe what happened to her friends. She’s now in her final year of high school, studying design and animation, part of a senior class that shrank from 338 to just 88 students.
“I sometimes wonder if some of the other students are still in the classroom, but no, this is all we have now,” she said.
Yang, a freckled, short-haired girl, takes medicine for anxiety. The feeling of the tilting ship still traumatizes her, and when she was on the 11th floor of a hospital last year, she felt like the building was leaning to one side. She grabbed her younger brother’s hand and ran down the steps to the first floor.
“If I had known this would happen I would have tried to be better friends with more kids,” she said during a two-hour interview with The Associated Press.
She feels guilty about surviving.
“I came out of this alive, but my friends didn’t,” she said. “I once dreamed that relatives of those who died came to kill the survivors.”
Jang Dong-won, the father of another student who was rescued, said that surviving students are still traumatized by memories of their friends during the last minutes of the sinking ship.
“One child missed a friend’s hands as the person was swept away by waves,” Jang said. “That last glance by the student who couldn’t move as a vending machine fell on them.”
They also are made to feel guilty by those around them.
“If they smile even just a little bit, they hear, ‘How can you smile?'” when most of their friends were killed, he said.
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