By Park Si-soo
Yeonpyeong Island, a peaceful fishing island in western border waters, became an inferno after it was attacked by a barrage of artillery shells fired by North Korea, Tuesday.
Many residents who were evacuated to safe locations thought of the attacks as the “outbreak of war.”
Power outage caused by explosions hit hundreds of houses and crippled the telecommunications system. Many houses were gutted by fire, the local government said.
Incheon City, which governs Yeonpyeong, issued an emergency evacuation order at 4 p.m., moving some 1,700 residents to safe locations.
Hundreds of Yeonpyeong residents scrambled to escape to Incheon, the nearest city on mainland Korea, using ferries and fishing boats. Those left behind on Yeonpyeong immediately evacuated to some 19 shelters installed underground or in military bases, residents said.
“The attack played havoc with my village. The island was clouded by dark plumes of smoke,” said a Yeonpyeong resident who was evacuated to Incheon. He said many people there were taken aback by the sounds of the explosions. “I felt like war had broken out,” he said.
An estimated 1,700 people live in some 930 houses on the island located just 13 kilometers from North Korea.
"I suddenly heard a thunderous sound outside. When I walked out, many houses were burning, with thick smoke billowing out," Lee Jong-ik, told YTN TV. "The hillsides were also on fire. I’ve never seen North Korean shells falling on our island."
The government has grounded all civilian boats and small planes whose travel routes skirt the island. Low-flying planes, including civilian helicopters, have been barred from going near the island and the Northern Limit Line that acts as the de facto sea border between the two Koreas.
Video clips recorded by tourists in Yeonpyeong at the time of attack showed thick columns of black smoke rising from the island and burning houses. Screams and chaotic shouts were heard on the video footage.
A 35-year-old Yeonpyeong resident who was hiding in an underground shelter along with dozens of her neighbors said on the phone after sunset, “I’m scared to death. I can see nothing because of a power outage.”
He said residents ducked under bridges or underground facilities as rounds of artillery began to hit wide areas of the island at around 2:34 p.m.