"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."
The South Korean Coast Guard found the burnt bodies of two male civilians on the island, bringing the number of dead to four. The attack also killed at least two marines and wounded 18 people in what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called one of the "gravest incidents" since the end of the Korean War.
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 Obama pledged Tuesday that the United States would defend South Korea after what the White House branded a provocative, outrageous attack by the North.
"South Korea is our ally. It has been since the Korean war," Mr. Obama told ABC News in his first comments about the North Korean shelling. "We strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance."
Mr. Obama also called upon China to restrain its ally Pyongyang.
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."