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Island panicked by surprise attack

Posted November. 24, 2010 17:11,   


“Boom, boom, boom!”

Choi Yul, a resident of Yeonpyeong Island, was cleaning a fishnet at his home Tuesday when North Korea fired its first barrage of artillery shells at 2:42 p.m.

Surprised by the huge sound of the explosion that felt like an earthquake, he immediately ran out of his house.

Thirty meters across his house, he saw a partially destroyed restaurant on fire. Soon after, the mountain behind his house was engulfed in smoke after being hit by two to three artillery shells.

Worse, three to four homes near Yeonpyeong Police Station were also in flames. The whole town was soon engulfed in smoke.

Yeonpyeong residents dropped to the ground in fear. Thinking that war had broken out, Choi helped people to stand up and shouted to others, “We’ve been attacked by artillery shells. Everyone evacuate immediately!”

He added, “The town was in total chaos as artillery shells simultaneously dropped everywhere. I don’t even remember how I got to the air-raid shelter.”

○ Island thrown into chaos

Residents of South Korea`s Yeonpyeong Island said in a phone interview with a reporter that as North Korea shelled residential areas and a military camp, the island was aflame and reminded them of a battlefield.

Eight buildings including Yellow Croaker History Museum, Haeseong Motel, the shrine of General Im Gyeong-up, and an ammunition dump were reportedly destroyed. A child surprised at the shelling of a dock cried, “Dad! Come here quick!”

“The whole village was shaken as more than 50 shells were dropped on the village and hills for more than 20 minutes,” one resident said. “Though ten homes and hills were on fire, I couldn`t think about putting out the fire and just managed to escape from my house.”

Kim Seong-tae, a branch manager of Ongjin Nonghyup on the island, said, “All office windows were broken as a bomb fell 50 meters away from the office. The situation was serious enough to devastate the entire village.”

Seong Bok-sun, 56, said, “I ran out of my house because I thought war had broken out after hearing a strong sound that shook a house and electricity was cut,” "I`m worried that many residents might be injured or killed because many houses were broken in half and on fire because of the shelling.”

“I heard the sound of an additional 20 shells at 3 p.m.”

Kim Un-han, the head of the Yeonpyeong Branch of the (South) Korea Coast Guard, said, “Wired and wireless communications have been cut off. Since I focused on evacuating residents to safety, I gave up putting out fires.”

Due to the shelling, 10 spots on a mountain caught fire, and since fire engines failed to get to the places on time, flames were seen until late at night. In addition, electric distribution lines were damaged and caused power outages at 420 out of 924 households.

○ Evacuation in accordance with emergency announcement

Upon learning of the emergency situation from the military, the Yeonpyeong township office kept sending an announcement telling residents to evacuate to the nearest air-raid shelters. Some 1,700 people who had undergone evacuation drills many times went to 19 evacuation facilities and air-raid shelters.

A passenger ship that left Incheon carrying 200 passengers arrived on Yeonpyeong Island at 3 p.m., but returned quickly after hearing news of the attack.

Some 120 students attending a public school on the island escaped from their classrooms as soon as they heard the sound of shells and headed for shelters on the mountain in the back of the school.

The school`s vice principal Ha Jun said, “I heard that most classrooms had their windows broken because of the sound of the shells and vibration. Fortunately, no students or teachers were injured.”

The Coast Guard evacuated 87 ships that were fishing off Yeonpyeong and Deokjeok islands to the south and returned two passenger ships that left Incheon at 1 p.m. for Daecheong Island, suspending all passenger ship activity.

○ Worried over relatives

With North Korea’s provocation disrupting the use of cell phones, not to mention landlines, Yeonpyeong residents and their relatives on the mainland were worried whether their relatives were alive.

Kim Won-yeong, chief of construction and disasters department at the Ongjin County Office, tried in vain to call his mother on his cell phone. Even the landline did not work because of the power outage due to the shelling.

Kim said, “I couldn’t reach her and asked my friend on the island about her at 3:45 p.m. but he didn`t know either. I`m so worried about her safety.”

Ongjin County had installed three surveillance cameras in Yeonpyeong but two of them were knocked out due to the attack. So the county monitored the situation solely through the remaining camera.

A county official said, “Because wired and wireless communications were cut off, we were bombarded with phone calls asking if family members on the island were alive.”

○ Evacuation on Baengnyeong Island

As news spread that a North Korean coast cannon base near Baengnyeong Island was prepared to launch shells, Baengnyeong residents fled to shelters.

Kim Jeong-seop, a representative of the township of Baengnyeong, said, “I first evacuated the young and old and children to the shelters, and guided others to stay in shelters and supplied candles and heating devices.”

Evacuation was also announced on Daecheong and Socheong islands.

The Incheon Metropolitan Office of Education indefinitely closed all public schools on five islands off the west coast, including Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong.

kchwang@donga.com min07@donga.com