Seoul (AFP) – Grieving relatives Saturday threw white chrysanthemums into the sea at the spot where the Sewol ferry sank, as South Korea marked the second anniversary of the disaster which killed 304.
Most of the victims were schoolchildren when the ship sank off the southwestern island of Jindo, in a tragedy caused by human error that shocked and enraged the country.
Salvage crews are now preparing for the challenging task of raising the 6,825-tonne ferry — a key demand of victims’ families, who cling to hope that nine bodies still unaccounted for may yet be recovered.
“Son, how are you? I’ve come to see you,” a father shouted from the deck of a coastguard vessel that brought mourners to the scene.
“Come back to us now. Your mother is waiting for you,” he said before tossing a flower overboard.
A crowd of some 2,500 mourners took part in a service on Jindo, reading memorial poems and releasing thousands of yellow balloons.
Memorial events also took place in Seoul and in the city of Ansan, where the students had gone to school.
Mourners queued to lay flowers in front of hundreds of portraits of victims on an altar set up beside a street in central Seoul. Online websites were full of postings mourning the dead.
The disaster was mainly due to human error — an illegal redesign of the ship, an overloaded cargo bay, inexperienced crew and a questionable relationship between the ship operators and state regulators.
Captain Lee Jun-Seok was sentenced to life in prison for “murder through wilful negligence” and sentences ranging from two to 12 years were imposed on 14 other crew members.
The $72 million salvage project being spearheaded by a Chinese company is expected to begin next month and could be finished by late July.
“The government will do its best to salvage the ship and bring back the nine missing bodies to the families,” Oceans Minister Kim Young-Suk said at the memorial service at Jindo.
– ‘World first’ –
The Sewol lies more than 40 metres (130 feet) beneath the surface, and officials say lifting the 145-metre-long vessel from the seabed without causing it to break up will be the main challenge.
“Unfortunately, nothing can be guaranteed and we can only do the very best we can do to ensure that the risk is minimised,” said Simon Burthem, a naval architect at TMC Marine, a global consulting firm involved in the salvage project.
Still, he said, there was an 80 percent chance the operation would succeed.
“Lifting the wreck in one piece from such a depth has never been done before, so this is a very, very difficult and challenging project and indeed a world first,” Burthem said.
Wang Weiping, the site superintendent of the Chinese salvage company, praised the dangerous work done by dive teams in often treacherous conditions.
Their main task had been to seal the vessel with netting to ensure nothing — such as human remains — tumbles out when the ship is being lifted.
For the families of the nine victims whose bodies were never recovered, the two-year wait has been emotionally draining.
“It’s been 730 days and I can see the ocean before me,” said Lee Keum-Hui, who has been camping out at Paengmok harbour near the salvage site, praying for the recovery of her 16-year-old daughter’s body.
“I know where she is but I can’t get her,” Lee said.
“I know the government can do more. But all I can do is just wait and trust its words,” she told AFP.
Other bereaved family members accused the government of a lack of transparency.
“Everything is conducted behind closed doors and the families are not permitted to observe the recovery operation,” said Jung Seong-Wook, who acts as a families’ representative for the salvage project.
The maritime ministry says it can arrange trips for the families as long as they do not disrupt salvage operations.
For relatives like Lee, the prospect of not recovering victims’ remains is almost unbearable.
“We tremble with fear at even the slightest chance of never finding the missing bodies,” she said.