JINDO, SOUTH KOREA // More than 100 relatives of victims of South Korea’s Sewol ferry disaster tearfully cast flowers into the sea on Wednesday at an emotional memorial event on the eve of the tragedy’s first anniversary.
In bright sunshine and on a calm sea, the relatives were taken by boat to the large yellow buoy that marks the site where the ferry sank on April 16 last year with the loss of 304 lives, most of them high school students.
Lying on the seabed 40 metres below, the sunken ferry remains a highly sensitive topic of heated debate a year later – not least over the question of whether it should be raised to the surface.
Victims’ families have threatened to boycott a semi-official memorial service on Thursday unless the government makes an immediate commitment to salvaging the 6,825-tonne Sewol – an operation that would cost an estimated US$110 million (Dh404m).
The relatives also continue to stage regular protests calling for a fully independent inquiry into the sinking, arguing that a committee created to probe the causes has been compromised by the inclusion of government officials in key posts.
The accident, which plunged the whole nation into a months-long period of intense mourning, was largely blamed on the ship’s illegal redesign and overloading.
But it also laid bare deep-rooted problems of corruption, lax safety standards and regulatory failings attributed to the country’s relentless push for economic growth.
As the boat carrying the families on Wednesday neared the scene of the accident, weeping relatives lined the deck on both sides, clutching white flowers and small mementos of their loved ones.
Nearly all wore the yellow jackets that have become something of a uniform of solidarity and grief.
At the site itself, the sound of crying and wailing grew louder, and some relatives had to be restrained as they climbed the lower rungs of the deck railing after tossing their flowers into the water, along with yellow paper boats and sweets and snacks that their children liked.
“I cried a lot today,” said Jang Hoon, 45, who lost his son.
“It was a difficult trip. I couldn’t stop thinking about my son’s face the whole time.”
The overloaded Sewol was carrying 476 people, including 325 students from the same high school in Ansan city, when it sank. Only 75 students survived.
The emergency response to the disaster was widely criticised for being slow, uncoordinated and unfocused, and prompted president Park Geun-hye to vow a complete overhaul of national safety standards.
Ms Park’s approval ratings plummeted after the tragedy and have only recently started to recover. There has been fresh criticism on social media over her decision to leave for an official tour of South America on the day of the anniversary.
A presidential spokeswoman said she had no information on whether Ms Park would do anything to mark the anniversary before her departure.
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 have spearheaded the calls for the ferry to be brought to the surface.
But Yoo Gyoung-Geun, spokesman for the main group representing relatives, said the government should first promise to raise the Sewol, or risk a boycott for Thursday’s main anniversary event.
* Agence France-Presse