3 years on, still no closure on Sewol tragedy

3 years on, still no closure on Sewol tragedy
The wreck of the Sewol ferry arrives at a port in Mokpo on March 31, 2017.

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 realizing 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.

"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-ton passenger ferry, was carrying 476 passengers -- mostly high school students on a field trip -- when it ran aground and 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.

Read also: Sewol tribute song released

"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 meters 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 finalize 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 football 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 kilometers across the city toward the joint altar, carrying yellow balloons and flowers to commemorate the victims.

Read also: Final preparations underway to lift sunken Sewol ferry

"The Sewol ferry incident symbolizes the rotten part of South Korean society," said Kim Yoo-na, a 32-year-old participant from Daegu. "The problem with it is that the authorities gave permission 'to fix' a secondhand ship to be reused to transport people -- it's disgusting and those rotten parts should be cut out."

On Jindo, near the site of the accident, some 1,000 mourners gathered for a memorial event to commemorate the third anniversary of the disaster and to support families of the nine victims that remain unaccounted for.

Mourners also visited Mokpo, where the raised ferry is sitting and bereaved families are still waiting for the remains of their children to return.

A day earlier, an estimated 100,000 people packed into Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul to join the nation's biggest memorial event, with hundreds of people waiting in a line 1 kilometer long to pay tribute to the victims at the joint altar.

"The reason I see hope out of this disaster is the raised awareness among the young generation. They learned that they should not just stand still as they are told," said teacher Son Chae-eun, who has been collecting signatures for a petition for a probe into the ferry disaster for the past three years at the square.

"I dream of a safer, better society in which students don't have to lose their dream."

As dusk fell, candles began to be lit, with participants watching musical performances, speeches by the grieving families and a survivor, and video clips showing the three-year-long fight for the "truth."

Shedding tears and also sharing smiles, they in unison vowed to stand in solidarity with the bereaved families until the nine missing bodies are recovered and those responsible for the disaster are punished.

Former President Park, who is now in prosecution's custody, is widely expected to be indicted Monday for corruption, joining a handful of her former aides and confidante who are standing trial.

The Sewol ferry's captain, who was among the first to abandon the ship without giving an evacuation order, was sentenced to life in prison. The court handed down a 12-year jail term to three ranking sailors and a seven-year prison term to the CEO of the shipping operator. A maritime police official in charge of the on-site rescue operation was sentenced to three years in prison.

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