Exhausted evacuees from an island attacked by North Korean artillery streamed off ships in this port city Wednesday, greeted by tearful family members and telling harrowing tales of the hour of destruction that sparked the region's latest diplomatic crisis.
"I heard the sound of artillery, and I felt that something was flying over my head," said Lim Jung-eun, a 36 year-old housewife who escaped Yeonpyeong island with her three children, one of whom, a 9-month-old baby girl, she carried on her back. "Then the mountain caught on fire."
South Korea's troops remained on high alert as their government exchanged threats with the rival North, and Seoul and Washington reaffirmed plans to stage joint military exercises later this week in the Yellow Sea, just 70 miles south of where Tuesday's skirmish occurred.
President Barack Obama underlined Washington's pledge to "stand shoulder to shoulder" and protect its ally Seoul after the North shelled the tiny South Korean island near disputed waters, and called upon China to restrain its ally Pyongyang. The attack killed at least two marines and wounding civilians in what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called one of the "gravest incidents" since the end of the Korean War.
South Korea vowed massive retaliation should North Korea attack again, while the North warned against even the slightest incursions into its territory.
The South Korean Coast Guard said more than 500 people arrived on the first ships from the island. They were greeted with hugs and tears by family members at the port; some, mostly the elderly, were taken to a line of ambulances waiting nearby.
There were stories of destroyed homes and panic. "Right after I saw the news, I called my daughter," said Chung Doo-sun, a 55 year-old man from nearby Gimpo city. "She was crying and told me the windows of her home were all shattered." His son-in-law, a marine on the island, was not hurt and will stay on the island. Chung said he only slept one hour because of worries about his daughter and grandchildren, who were also safe. "I'll never allow my daughter and my grandchildren to go back to Yeonpyeong island," Chung said. "North Korea is so unpredictable."
In the crowd at the port was a 68 year-old South Korean man, who was waiting for his 46-year-old son and his daughter-in-law. "I'm always worried about my son, because North Korea has always committed provocation near the island," the man, who would only identify himself by his family name Kim.
"North Korea has not changed at all," Kim said. He said he still holds bitter memories of the Korean War. "They are so cruel."
The scene at the port contrasted with the calm in Seoul, South Korea's capital of more than 10 million people, where citizens went about their business Wednesday with shops, offices and financial markets open as usual, but with the previous day's skirmish weighing on people's minds.
"We are concerned that a war might break out," said Oh Duk-man, who was walking in downtown Seoul.
In Young-joo, another pedestrian, called for a strong response. "Our government has to react very strongly against North Korea after they invaded us in such a daring way," she said. South Korea said Wednesday it would strengthen military forces in the disputed western waters near Yeonpyeong and to halt aid to the communist North, while the North warned of more military strikes if the South encroaches on the maritime border by "even 0.001 millimeter."
South Korea sent two ships carrying 2,000 boxes of relief supplies to the stricken island Wednesday, Coast guard official Kim Dong-jin said.
Images released by the local government and obtained through YTN television showed people huddled in emergency shelters, children wrapped in blankets, rows of destroyed houses with collapsed walls, blown out windows and charred roofs. A man with a shovel walked through the rubble.
The skirmish began Tuesday when North Korea warned the South to halt military drills near their sea border, according to South Korean officials.
When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters, but away from the North Korean shore, the North retaliated by shelling Yeonpyeong, which houses South Korean military installations and a small civilian population. Seoul responded by unleashing its own barrage from K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers and scrambling fighter jets.
Two South Korean marines were killed in the shelling that also injured 15 troops and three civilians. Officials in Seoul said there could be considerable North Korean casualties.
At a military hospital in Seongnam, just outside of Seoul, relatives wailed in grief as they filed out of a memorial Wednesday for the two marines killed in the artillery barrage. "Bring him back!" Kim O-bok, 50, cried out about her 22-year-old son, Seo Jeong-woo, as she fell forward and relatives supported her.
Shin Hyun-don, head of South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff's Operation Planning Department, said South Korea's military "cannot help suppressing anger toward North Korea's inhumane atrocities indiscriminately firing artillery at defenseless civilians residents." "We also severely warn North Korea that we will punish them strongly if there are any further provocations," he said.