, Ansan, South Korea, Apr 16 – South Korea’s president vowed to raise the sunken Sewol ferry Thursday, bowing to a key demand of grieving relatives as they marked the first anniversary of the disaster that claimed 304 lives – most of them schoolchildren.
“I will take the necessary steps to salvage the ship at the earliest possible date,” Park Geun-Hye announced during a brief visit to the southern island of Jindo — the closest landfall to the site where the Sewol sank on April 16.
The concession to raise the 6,825-tonne vessel – at an estimated cost of $110 million – failed to appease victims’ families, who boycotted a planned anniversary memorial event to push their separate demand for a fully independent inquiry into the tragedy.
The tense to-and-fro reflected the depth of the residual anger in South Korea a year after the passenger ferry went down.
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.
Of the 304 who died, 250 were children from the same high school in Ansan, a city south of Seoul that was the focus of Thursday’s remembrance activities.
– Minute’s silence –
Flags flew at half mast and yellow ribbons fluttered from trees and lamp posts across the city, where sirens blared at 10:00 am (0100 GMT) and residents bowed their heads for a minute’s silence and prayer.
Despite torrential rain, thousands of mourners passed through a memorial hall containing hundreds of black-ribboned, flower-ringed portraits of the dead students.
Parents and other relatives sobbed and beat their chests as they left messages, stuffing animals and favoured snacks under the framed photos.
“My son, I hope you’re happy up there. Mom misses you so much,” one message read.
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.”
Uniformed students from Danwon High School were among those who paid their respects, standing in tearful silence before the portraits of their dead classmates.
A formal memorial event had been scheduled for the afternoon in Ansan, but the victims’ families cancelled it, despite Park’s agreement to salvage the ferry.