South Koreans remember victims of ferry disaster

Tears and anger mark boat tragedy's first anniversary as relatives and friends mourn 304 dead, mostly schoolchildren.

    Grief, anger and political tension are marking the first anniversary of South Korea's Sewol ferry disaster.

    Relatives mourning the 304 dead, mostly schoolchildren, are accusing top officials of indifference to the tragedy.

    Bowing to a key demand of the victims' families, President Park Geun-Hye used the anniversary on Thursday to announce that the 6,825-tonne vessel would be brought to the surface at "the earliest possible date".

    Park made the statement during a visit to the southern island of Jindo, the closest landfall to the site where the Sewol sank on April 16.

    Family members, still angry over the official response to the disaster, declined to meet her, and there was no immediate response from the relatives to the announcement that the ferry would be raised.

    The focus of Thursday's anniversary was on Ansan city, south of Seoul, where a single high school lost 250 students when the ferry went down.

    Yellow ribbons

    Flags flew at half mast and yellow ribbons fluttered from trees and lamp posts as sirens blared across the city at 10am local time (01:00 GMT) and residents bowed their heads for a minute's silence and prayer.

    Despite heavy rain, a steady stream of mourners passed through the memorial hall in Ansan, containing hundreds of black-ribboned, flower-ringed portraits of the dead students.

    Al Jazeera's Harry Fawcett, reporting from Ansan, said the commemoration was still very anger-ridden.

    "Families abandoned the main commemorative event. Time has not healed very much," he said.

    He said family members went to the site of sinking and "many broke down in tears ... in incrimination of both themselves and the government".

    There is widespread frustration among many South Koreans who see their government as having failed to meaningfully improve safety standards and hold high-level officials accountable for a disaster blamed in part on incompetence and corruption.

    Some also express fatigue with the continuing focus on the sinking.

    A giant screen showed a slideshow of family pictures below a large banner that read: "We're sorry. We love you. We won't forget."

    Dangerous search

    The overloaded Sewol was carrying 476 people, including 325 students from the high school in Ansan, when it sank. Only 75 students survived.

    A total of 295 bodies were recovered from the ferry, but nine remained unaccounted for when divers finally called off the dangerous search in November. 

    The families of those still missing had spearheaded the calls for the ferry to be brought to the surface - an operation that would cost an estimated $110m.

    The disaster, with the loss of so many young lives, stunned the entire country, and one year later there is still a deep sense of public grievance over the perceived inadequacy of the official response.

    While largely blamed on the ship's illegal redesign and overloading, the accident laid bare deeper-rooted problems of corruption, lax safety standards and regulatory failings attributed to the country's relentless push for economic growth.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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