Grief and anger as South Korea marks ferry tragedy

The lives of 304 people – including 250 schoolchildren – were lost a year ago, prompting national angst and anger.

South Korea
A relative weeps at the site where the ferry sank off the coast of South Korea's island of Jindo [AP]

Seoul, South Korea – On a sombre, rain-swept day, South Koreans mourned the first anniversary of the Sewol ferry tragedy on Thursday, expressing grief but also pondering how such a disaster could strike this prosperous, sophisticated nation.

The sinking cost the lives of 304 people, including 250 schoolchildren, prompting national angst over safety standards and raising questions over personal, corporate and governmental responsibility.

Vying with grief was anger among many victims’ families, who allege that certain key facts have still not been uncovered. They also demand the withdrawal of a governmental bill that, they say, compromises the independence of a fact-finding body probing the tragedy.

Speaking in Jindo, close to the disaster site on Thursday, President Park Geun-hye said: “I have a heavy heart,” and pledged to raise the 6,825-tonne sunken ferry, believed to be the tomb of nine unrecovered bodies. The raising operation – estimated to cost at least $90m – had been a central demand of grieving family members.

The day before, mourning relatives cast flowers into the waters off Jindo.

 Korea marks anniversary of ferry disaster

Simmering anger

But many are angry at Park, alleging she failed to impel better rescue-and-recovery efforts. And, besieged by a bribery scandal, she is scheduled to fly to South America on a state visit later Thursday, drawing further criticism. 

“We were deeply hurt to hear that,” said Yoo Gyoung-geun, whose daughter Jie-eun died in the disaster, and whose “4.16 Families of the Sewol Tragedy” association represents 360 survivors or bereaved family members, from among the 476 passengers aboard the Sewol.

In Ansan, the satellite town southwest of Seoul that is the site of Danwon High School, where most of the victims were second-year students, there were angry scenes as Prime Minister Lee Won-koo was prevented from entering the memorial hall by bereft family members.

Members of Yoo’s association refused to join an official memorial ceremony in protest at the government’s refusal to withdraw the problematic bill. A private ceremony was expected to be held in the evening.

Candlelit demonstrations were expected in central Seoul and yellow – yellow ribbons became the emblem of the tragedy – is ubiquitous in the city centre. Some 300 events are reportedly under way nationwide.

Tragedy, aftermath and controversy

According to findings from the judicial proceedings that followed the sinking, the tragedy resulted from a combination of factors.

The Sewol‘s operating company had added superstructure to the hull and removed ballast water to enable the loading of extra cargo. On its last voyage from Incheon, near Seoul, to the resort island of Jeju, off South Korea’s south coast, Sewol was overloaded with cargo, which was improperly secured. 

When the vessel made a sharp turn at breakfast time on April 16, 2014, it heeled over near the island of Jindo. But Sewol was sinking slowly, seas were calm, and fishing boats, coastguard cutters and helicopters soon surrounded it.

Of the 476 on board, just 172 survived [EPA]
Of the 476 on board, just 172 survived [EPA]

A key factor in the high death count was incompetence: A crew member told passengers over the public address system to remain in their cabins, rather than proceeding to upper, open decks from where they could be rescued.

Most passengers who followed those orders were consigned to nightmarish deaths. Unable to clamber up steeply angled decks as the vessel’s list inexorably increased and heavy fixtures came loose and fell, they were trapped below when Sewol capsized and sank by the stern. Tonnes of freezing water gushed in.

Harrowingly, some students, realising their imminent fate, sent smartphone footage of their final moments.

Search and recovery operations were halted in November, leaving nine missing.

The ship’s captain – who abandoned his passengers without passing on orders to abandon ship – and 14 crew members received lengthy prison sentences. The coastguard officer in charge of the rescue was also jailed for negligence, and the coastguard reorganised.

Questions remain

Despite intense public and media brouhaha, it is not entirely clear what facts about the disaster remain unknown. When pressed on this question by foreign journalists on Wednesday, Yoo’s association was vague. Crew cowardice and rescuer incompetence were uncovered in the trials, but they reject individual responsibility.

“They made individuals responsible, but I don’t think individual action is the cause of the tragedy,” Yoo said. “We have to find out the systemic and structural problems.”

His association also demands the scrapping of a governmental bill which, Yoo contends, hands overall control of the probe to civil servants.

“They should not be in charge of investigating their own faults,” Yoo said. “That is why we want to get rid of it.”

While that process is worked through, the bereaved and survivors are left grieving and traumatised.

“I sent my daughter to school, not out to sea,” said Lee Keum-hui, whose daughter Eun-hwa died, and whose body has never been found.

“If Eun-hwa knew how much I had been crying for her, and how much my heart has been breaking, she would be the saddest person on Earth.”

Children unfold red banners reading 'We will make our nation safe' [EPA]
Children unfold red banners reading ‘We will make our nation safe’ [EPA]

Painful memories

Many survivors suffer guilt and post-traumatic stress; 57 of the 75 surviving students have been treated.

“Surviving students have terrible memories,” said Jang Dong-gun, a member of Yoo’s association. “One student was holding hands with another student and she suddenly lost her friend’s hand – the next moment she was gone.”

Another student, trapped under a fallen vending machine and begging for help, was abandoned, Jang said.

In Ansan, some neighbours have berated survivors when they saw them laughing or smiling, he added.

“They need psychiatric counselling,” Jang said. “But there is only one school doctor; the government promised to send more, but that promise was never kept.”

Of 14 teachers aboard Sewol, 11 died. The vice principal, who had planned the trip and survived, hung himself in a location overlooking the disaster site. The last two surviving teachers both quit their jobs.  

“I feel if the teachers had guided the students better, more students would have survived,” said a weeping Kim Sung-wook, who represents the teacher victims in the “4.16” association.

“I just hope those students and teachers are on a happy school trip in heaven.”

Source: Al Jazeera