A tapping sound broke through the dark monotony inside the tipped cargo ship. After what had seemed like days of waiting, three crew members trapped inside heard signs of life outside the Golden Ray.
It was the first moment since the massive boat had somehow fallen on its side in the early morning hours of Sept. 8 that the men who’d been unable to escape knew they’d been found. They had waited in total darkness for hours, and they were determined to make sure that their savior knew they were alive.
So the men screamed, and they banged on the ship walls with every ounce of energy they had in them.
Then the tapping on the other side stopped, and in its absence came doubt.
Had they been heard? And would they survive?
Around that same time, David Oh sat safely at home and heard his cellphone ring.
Oh, a Korean-American fourth-year medical student, was in the middle of a one-month stint in Brunswick for a family medicine rotation through the Medical College of Georgia. That night, he had an incoming call from his father, who lives in South Korea.
His dad had seen the news in the Korean media — four South Korean men working on a cargo ship were trapped inside after the boat capsized somewhere near the state borders of Georgia and Florida.
“Aren’t you there?” Oh’s dad asked. “Can you check them out?”
Less than a day later, Oh met those four men immediately after their rescue from the Golden Ray, when they arrived at the Southeast Georgia Health Center’s Brunswick hospital. As a member of the medical team that initially received the men, and as the only person there who spoke fluent Korean, Oh served as one of the first people to hear the firsthand accounts of the four who’d been trapped inside the ship for nearly 40 hours after it toppled over.
“I knew that they’re not American, they’re Korean, and the first thing that came to my mind was that they’re going to have this linguistic barrier,” Oh said.
No answer has yet to be given for why the freighter flipped over. The cargo ship was leaving the port in Brunswick with around 4,200 vehicles on board, and today the vessel remains on its side in the center of the St. Simons Sound.
Through the heroic efforts of U.S. Coast Guard members and Glynn County emergency responders, 20 of the 24 Filipino and South Korean crew members were rescued the day the boat tipped.
Four men were left inside, without a means to escape. Those involved in the response effort continued working diligently for the next day and a half to rescue these men. And as media, both local and around the world, began to cover the incident, readers and viewers waited and watched anxiously for the men to be saved.
Inside the ship, though, there was little for the trapped crew to do but listen, wait and hope.
A week, or more?
Later, the four crew members described to Oh the hours of agonizing waiting they endured.
Three were together in one room of the ship, while a fourth man was alone in another compartment nearby. That night, Oh said, they were able to make one another aware of their presence by shouting through the ship’s walls. But the three in one room were never sure who their fourth companion was.
Time became hard to track inside the boat, Oh said, especially for the crew member who waited alone.
“The person who got rescued last, he said he thought it’s been a week,” Oh said. “… He asked me, ‘Wait how long was I there? Has it been a week, or a little more?’”
The Coast Guard first reported signs of life inside the boat late that Sunday night, when people outside and inside the ship were able to communicate through tapping. But responders were not able to rescue the men until the following day.
So inside the ship, the relief at being found turned quickly into anxiety when they weren’t immediately saved.
“They thought that, ‘Oh, they are coming,’ but then they left, right?” Oh said. “And they had a good reason. But the people inside don’t know that. So they were like, ‘Wait, did they miss us?’”
A single minute, Oh said, probably felt like an hour to those trapped inside.
“Time is not flowing the same way,” he said. “It’s ticking very slowly.”
Do what you need to do
Oh, who has since returned to Atlanta to continue his fourth year of medical school, served for one month this summer in Dr. Jay Floyd’s clinic at Coastal Community Health Services. He was at work that Monday when news came that the four trapped men were being rescued from the ship.
Three were on their way to the hospital, while the fourth still remained inside the Golden Ray.
“David, do what you need to do,” Floyd told Oh, who set off immediately to the Brunswick hospital.
He arrived at the emergency room to find three weak men covered in oil and relieved to be alive. They’d spent nearly 40 hours, Oh said, stuck in the bottom of the ship, without water and inside hot, smothering darkness.
“Because they’re mechanical engineers, guess where they’re near? They’re near the engine,” Oh said. “So the reason why they were completely covered with oils is not because the oils were just spilling out but because, what are you going to do in this hot weather to keep you cooled down? You’re going to immerse yourself into the oil.”
Despite what these men had just endured, though, Oh said they appeared relatively healthy.
“They looked a lot better than what we expected, given the situation,” he said.
After taking initial assessments and finding the men to be mostly unscathed physically, Oh turned his attention to their emotional needs.
“I think that’s something that all physicians have to do,” he said. “We don’t just take care of the physical health … Mental is a health too.”
Oh’s first priority was to contact their families.
“The first thing I did is to make an international call to their parents,” he said. “Thankfully, I have a Korean app.”
The Korean media, which followed the tipped Golden Ray story closely, had not yet reported that the men had been rescued, Oh said, and he knew their parents would be frantic for information.
“I don’t have any kids, but if I were their parents, I would be freaking out,” he said
Over the phone, Oh heard a mix of emotional responses — tears, shouts, joyful exclamations. Talking with their parents also brought out emotions in the three rescued men, all of whom Oh said were fairly young.
“I’m sure when they got rescued, they thought, ‘Oh thank God I’m alive,’” Oh said. “But then when they actually start talking to their parents, that’s when they really started to realize, I can go back home. I can see my parents again.”
Oh’s next concern, he said, was to make sure the starving men ate. He left the hospital and drove to a nearby Asian restaurant, where he purchased more than $100 worth of food.
He returned with five meals — three for the rescued men, one for himself and one for the final crew member.
Nearly five hours separated the rescue of the first three from the rescue of the fourth, Oh said. And during that time, the three rescued men asked at least once an hour for the status of their fellow ship mate who remained trapped.
Word finally reached the ER that the fourth man was freed, and Oh said one crew member at the hospital began to openly cry at the news. The men later told Oh that they couldn’t bear the idea of leaving one crew member behind on the boat.
“I told them, it’s not in your control, you shouldn’t think that way,” Oh said. “But they were like, ‘Hey, we’re leaving him behind. We shouldn’t get out unless he’s rescued.’ That was their kind of mentality.”
The fourth man arrived, and health reports were taken. Oh brought him a plate of food and urged him to eat, promising to join him when Oh finished working.
“He was like, ‘No, you’re working for us. I can’t do that,’” Oh said.
When Oh returned more than an hour later, he saw that the crew member had waited for him.
The two ate together, and they also began to talk.
Through the next several days, Oh would form close bonds with the four rescued crew members and provided them with comfort as they recovered from their harrowing experience.
“Honestly, anyone would have done the same,” Oh said.
Once the men were discharged from the hospital and sent to stay in a local hotel, Oh began making daily trips to visit them after work. He was then able to hear in even further detail what happened in the depths of the Golden Ray, while the four men were trapped with little to no idea of what kind of rescue operation was taking place outside.
Before speaking with The News, Oh checked with the four men, all of whom he’s remained in touch with since they left Glynn County.
And all four, he said, wanted to take the opportunity to thank this community for the care they were shown here.
“They all wanted to thank so many people,” Oh said.
The men were confined to the hospital and then to their hotel after their rescue, leaving them with little opportunity to express their gratitude to those who aided in their rescue.
“First of all, they really wanted to thank the Coast Guards,” Oh said. The men also thanked all the other emergency responders, the health care team at the hospital and the many community members who donated or in any way helped them following their rescue.
“It was so evident that this community was willing to help,” Oh said.
Oh, too, wanted to share his thanks.
“Even as a third person, I’m really grateful for this community,” he said. “And I’m just very lucky to be here and to have an opportunity to serve the people here too, even for a brief period of time.”