Sewol disaster: President pledges to raise ferry as South Korea mourns

SOUTH KOREA, APR 16: South Korea’s president has promised to raise the Sewol ferry, as the nation marks a year since the disaster.

A total of 304 people, mostly school students, were killed when the ship – overloaded and illegally redesigned – sank off Jindo island.

The disaster triggered nationwide grief and outrage. It led to severe criticism of safety standards and rescue efforts.

Divers have recovered all but nine of the bodies. Relatives say the ship must be raised so more remains can be found.

The government says salvaging the ship will cost $110m (£74m). But President Park Guen-hye, speaking at a port in Jindo, said she would take “the necessary steps to salvage the ship at the earliest possible date”.

South Korea’s legislative National Assembly adopted a resolution calling on the government to ensure the ferry’s speedy recovery, which it said “is the path toward healing the minds of the victims, survivors and bereaved families… as well as those of all the citizens”, reported Yonhap.

Memorial ceremonies are being held in some 300 places across the country.

The largest takes place in the afternoon at a hall in Ansan city, the home of the students, who were on a school trip. A private ceremony will also take place at their school in the evening.

In the morning, Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo was prevented from entering the memorial hall by angry relatives of those who died.

Investigators say the ferry sank because, when an inexperienced crew member made too fast a turn, the combination of an illegal redesign and overloaded cargo meant the ship was unstable.

But the relatives want an independent, more thorough inquiry into the disaster, which sparked countrywide debate about regulatory failings and official incompetence.

‘Heart aches’

On Wednesday, some sailed to the site of the disaster to scatter flowers and make offerings.

“I am so heartbroken. In such cold water, to think how cold she would have been,” Reuters news agency quoted Lee Jung-seob as saying of her daughter, school student Hye-kyung.

“As she ended her life, to think how she would have missed her mum and dad and her family. My heart aches so much.”

As the ship – sailing from Incheon to Jeju island – listed, the crew told passengers to stay in their cabins and wait.

Harrowing phone messages and footage later emerged showing students growing increasingly scared as they became trapped inside the sinking ship.

Steve Evans, BBC News, Seoul:

The mother showed the records she still keeps on her phone of those last calls from her daughter. In those calls from the stricken vessel, Eun-hwa expressed her worry that the ship was tilting. She was concerned at the fears of her fellow passengers, her school friends from Danwon High School.

Not only did Eun-hwa not return but her remains have not been found. She is one of nine victims of whom there is no trace. Their families want the Sewol raised because the absence of remains impedes the process of grief and of mourning.

Her mother told the BBC: “It really hurts. The anger boils up. My heart feels as if it’s about to burn.”

Demands for answers go on

Grey line

Most of the crew survived. The captain and three senior crew members were given long jail terms for failing to adequately protect passengers, and 11 other crew members were also imprisoned.

The captain of the first coast guard vessel on scene was also jailed for negligence relating to the botched rescue effort.

Separate trials were held for employees of the ferry operator, Chonghaejin Marine Co. The billionaire owner Yoo Byung-eun disappeared after the disaster and was eventually found dead.

Sewol victims

  • 325 students aged between 16 and 17 from Danwon High School, south of Seoul, were on a school trip to the holiday island of Jeju when the ferry sank
  • Only about 70 survived – many had obeyed orders to stay put as the ferry listed
  • Several texted their family members goodbye and to tell them “I love you”. One also filmed what turned out to be his last moments on his mobile phone inside the ship. The texts and footage were retrieved by parents and later broadcast on national television
  • Some of the survivors later testified that they had to float out of cabins and most of the crew members did not attempt to help them
  • At least three crew members died trying to evacuate passengers. They included an engaged couple, Jung Hyun-seon and Kim Ki-Woong, and the youngest crew member Park Ji-young, who gave her lifejacket to a passenger. All three have been named “martyrs” by the government.