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Grief in town of students missing in ferry sinking

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A woman offers prayer with candlelight for the missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank off South Korea’s southern coast, likely with scores of people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos, a crew member said Thursday. (AP Photo/Wonghae Cho)

A woman offers prayer with candlelight for the missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank off South Korea’s southern coast, likely with scores of people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos, a crew member said Thursday. (AP Photo/Wonghae Cho)

Personal items belonging to students who were on the sinking ferry sit inside an empty classroom of Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for 287 passengers, many thought to be high school students, still missing more than a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea. (AP Photo/Woohae Cho)

People gather to pray with candlelights for the missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank off South Korea’s southern coast, likely with scores of people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos, a crew member said Thursday. (AP Photo/Woohae Cho)

Danwon High School students hold papers with messages such as “come back,” “miss you,” “love you” and “don’t loose your hope” for their friends who are missing after Wednesday’s ferry disaster at the school yard in Ansan, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for 287 passengers, many thought to be high school students, still missing more than a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea. (AP Photo/Woohae Cho)

A woman offers prayer with candlelights for the missing passengers of a sunken ferry at Danwon High School in Ansan, South Korea, Thursday, April 17, 2014. An immediate evacuation order was not issued for the ferry that sank off South Korea’s southern coast, likely with scores of people trapped inside, because officers on the bridge were trying to stabilize the vessel after it started to list amid confusion and chaos, a crew member said Thursday. (AP Photo/Wonghae Cho)

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ANSAN, South Korea (AP) — The most poignant reminders of what’s been lost here are the most ordinary.

Desks in the classrooms of Danwon High School in Ansan, where dozens of students were missing and feared dead Thursday after a ferry disaster, are cluttered with textbooks, gym clothes, empty water bottles — small bits of ordinary school life now infused with heartbreak.

There is fury as parents and students lash out at the swarming news media. Horror, too, as they picture loved ones trapped in the cold and dark of a flipped, submerged ferry. Most refuse to believe that, even after dozens of attempts, a friend, a child, a sibling won’t answer their cellphone. They keep calling.

They try to nourish any link, no matter how small, to the missing: Parents and school workers have locked up the missing students’ belongings because their schoolmates were taking them home as keepsakes, mementos of friends they believe are dead.

One message on a blackboard reads: “Please, everyone return safely!” Another: “Jin-yong! Please come home alive.”

More than 320 Danwon High School second-year students — mostly 16- and 17-year-olds — left Tuesday night for what was supposed to be one of the highlights of the year, a 14-hour overnight ferry trip to the southern resort island of Jeju for four days of fun. Now, as the hours stretch on since the ferry sank Wednesday with no word about more than 280 missing passengers among the 475 people on board, Ansan fears the worst.

“Do you believe they’re still alive?” Lee Mi-shim, a 48-year-old mother of a missing student, asked a reporter as tears streamed down her face. “I know the chances aren’t good. … No one in his class has been rescued.”

Lee, whose husband died about 10 years ago, had heart surgery a few years ago. Her son, Kim Ki-su, always told her that he’d eventually become a Korean traditional doctor to help her. “I feel like collapsing. At least then I’d die earlier than him,” Lee said.

The 20 people confirmed dead Thursday include at least five students and two teachers, and there’s fear that number will go much higher because so many of the passengers were from the school. More than a dozen teachers were on board.

“My baby is trapped in cold waters now. How can I sleep comfortably?” said a 63-year-old grandmother of a missing student who gave only her surname, Kim, tears welling in her eyes as she explained why she stayed overnight at the school’s auditorium waiting for news about the search. “I cannot live without him.”

There were huge swings in emotions Thursday at the school’s auditorium, where hundreds of family members, students, residents and aid workers gathered, desperate for news. Volunteers, wearing green or yellow vests, cleaned the school and provided coffee, fruit, rice, kimchi and instant noodles.

In the morning, people sat and stared vacantly at a giant TV screen broadcasting news of the sinking. Some women wiped away tears. One middle-aged woman wept as

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