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3 years on, still no closure on Sewol tragedy

SEOUL/ANSAN, Gyeonggi Province (The Korea Herald) -- For many South Koreans, facing April 16 does not get any easier. The day brings back traumatic memories of watching on TV a giant passenger ferry sink slowly in a calm sea and realising a few hours later that what they had watched was the scene of nearly 300 being drowned to death.

It is even more difficult for victims' grieving families, as they still search for the truth behind what caused the Sewol ferry to sink and why the government failed to save so many.

Yellow balloons fly away at the thrid annual memorial event held at Paengmok Port on Jindo, near the site of the Sewol ferry disaster, Sunday. -- Photo Yonhap

“Min-jung was a sweet girl who wanted to become a pharmacist -- and she studied hard in school for her dream,” Chung Ki-yeop, 51, an uncle of the student victim Kim Min-jung, told The Korea Herald in front of a joint altar in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province.

“Anyone who wasn't at the site of the accident cannot understand the helplessness and pain. I could not do anything but watch a loved one drown,” he said.

Sewol, a 6,800-tonne passenger ferry, was carrying 476 passengers -- mostly high school students on a field trip -- when it sank off a southwestern island on April 16, 2014. Just 172 passengers were rescued. Nine are still missing.

April is once again marked with apologies and promises not to forget those who died in the Sewol ferry tragedy and to find the truth behind the man-made disaster to prevent a recurrence.

This April, however, should be different, some mourners hoped.

“I hope it will be different this year,” said Lee Seon-ok, 46, in front of the joint altar at Gwanghwamun Square, one of several erected to mark the three-year anniversary of the disaster.

“The recovery of the ship is only the beginning of finding the truth behind the accident,” said Lee whose daughter is the same age as the student victims.

Hopes for a closure finally

The anniversary this year comes amid growing hope that the country may be closer to some kind of a closure to the tragedy, with the salvage of the ill-fated ship from the seabed.

Sewol, which lay more than 40 metres below the waves for three years, was raised above water on March 23. Now moved to dry land at Mokpo Port, the hull is being secured and washed for the long-awaited search of its interior for the bodies of the nine still missing. The government is to announce the search plan Tuesday.

Many South Koreans hope that the soon-to-launch search and inspection process of the hull will be able to unearth the “whole truth” behind the sinking.

In 2014, state prosecutors concluded that a combination of overloaded freight, a displacement of cargo, an illegal redesign of the ferry and a sharp turn by unskilled helmsmen were the causes of the disaster.

But the results did not answer questions over why the authorities failed to rescue passengers in the early hours of the rescue operations and who should be held accountable for the deaths of 304 people.

Many believe ousted President Park Geun-hye was part of the reason behind the botched rescue efforts and that her administration tried to cover it up. Mishandling of the Sewol disaster was one of the charges brought against the conservative leader when she was impeached by the parliament late last year. However, the Constitutional Court did not see it as an impeachable charge in its decision to finalise her removal from office in March.

“I hope that the deaths of 304 people will help make society safer,” said Oh Jin-geun, a 44-year-old office worker from Seoul who was among thousands who visited another joint altar for victims set up in Ansan, where memories of the student victims remain intact. Most of the victims were students from Danwon High School in Ansan.

“During the next government, the nine missing bodies should quickly be recovered and the causes behind the sinking should be revealed,” Oh said.

The altar had flowers, chocolates and other gifts such as books and soccer balls that showed the tarnished youth and dreams that once shone bright.

In the afternoon, some 7,000 people, including four of the five presidential hopefuls, gathered for the third annual memorial event held near the altar. Memorial songs were sung, poems were read and videos were played.

Just a few blocks away from there, “memory classrooms,” a scale replica of the actual classrooms at Danwon High School, also received visitors. The classrooms were relocated to the Ansan Education Office last May.

Visitors browsed through handwritten letters and left messages and gifts on the desks that have been preserved in memory of the 250 students killed in the sinking. Outside the classrooms, an estimated 1,000 people marched some 5 kilometres across the city toward the joint altar, carrying yellow balloons and flowers to commemorate the victims.

(Latest Update April 18, 2017)

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