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A relative of a passenger aboard a sunken ferry weeps at a port in Jindo, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for more than 280 passengers still missing a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Classmates celebrating 60th birthday among missing in ferry tragedy
First Published Apr 17 2014 08:33 am • Last Updated Apr 17 2014 08:33 am

Mokpo, South Korea • 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 city, where the ferry departed Tuesday evening.

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Within hours, the 17 former schoolmates were fighting for their lives as the multi-story 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.

Nine people, including five students and two teachers, have been confirmed dead, 287 are still missing and 179 have been rescued. 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.

Among his friends, Kim said he missed Baek Pyung-kwon most.

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"He didn’t even drink and he helped other people in difficulties a lot," Kim said. "He was not even rich but he made a lot of donations when he watched stories of people in difficulties on TV. He did a lot of volunteer work."

Another of Kim’s missing friends was an elder at a church, a devout Christian who also spent his time volunteering.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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