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South Koreans still seek answers 10 years after Sewol ferry disaster

Ansan, South Korea

South Korea remembered the 304 people, most of them school children, who died on the Sewol ferry on the 10th anniversary of its sinking on Tuesday, with families calling for a proper apology for the unnecessary deaths of their loved ones.

Many parents attended a memorial service in the city of Ansan, home of the 250 children who died on the ferry during a school excursion, while another 37 family members boarded a Coast Guard ship that sailed to the scene of the disaster, marked by a lone buoy, and held a memorial at sea.

A man takes a look around a replicated classroom of students who died in the sunken Sewol ferry disaster that killed 304 people, mostly school students, in Ansan, South Korea, on 16th April, 2024. PICTURE: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

“Every single day of the 10 years has been painful, unbearable time,” Kim Jong-gi, who lost his daughter Soo-jin, said at the memorial, adding that those responsible for the disaster had yet to be held accountable.

On the morning of 16th April, 2014, the Sewol sank with 476 passengers and crew on board. Of the 304 people killed, 250 were students from the Danwon High School in Ansan.

The scenes of the 6,800-ton vessel sinking on live TV stunned the country. Disbelief turned to outrage as it emerged the captain and crew had abandoned the ship, and that the children were told to stay in the cabin and wait for rescue.

Rescuers were slow to arrive, and were largely ineffective when they got there. Coast guard officials were put on trial for negligence, but they were acquitted.

Investigations found that the ship’s structure had been illegally modified and that it had been overloaded. When it went into a turn, the vessel’s speed and load caused it to capsize.

The captain is serving a life sentence and other members of the crew are also in jail. No one else has been prosecuted, an issue of contention for the victims’ families a decade on.

President Yoon Suk Yeol offered his condolences. “May the victims rest in peace, and I offer my deep condolences to the bereaved families,” he said.

A girl sits inside a large yellow coloured ribbon dedicated to victims of the sunken Sewol ferry disaster that killed 304 people, mostly school students, during a ceremony to commemorate its tenth anniversary in Ansan, South Korea, on 16th April, 2024. PICTURE: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Memorials were held throughout the country including at the port of Mokpo in the south where the wreckage of the Sewol is on display.

Over the years, some parents have staged plays to remember their children and cope with their grief, which some have likened to the loss faced by the families of the 159 mostly young people who died in a Halloween day crush two years ago.

Others continue to search for justice, and closure.

There have been a number of investigations and inquiries into the disaster but the families say none have provided the answers they are seeking.

“Our demand is very simple. Accept responsibility, apologise and promise disasters like this won’t ever happen again,” said Park Seung-ryul who leads an alliance of civic groups working to help the victims’ families’ search for justice.

– Additional reporting by HYUNSU YIM


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