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    Apr 16, 2015

    Families mourn victims of Korea ferry disaster one year on


    MORE than 100 relatives of victims of the Sewol ferry disaster tearfully cast flowers into the sea yesterday, at an emotional memorial event on the eve of the tragedy's first anniversary.

    In bright sunshine and amid 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 40m 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 today, unless the government makes an immediate commitment to salvaging the 6,825-ton Sewol - an operation that would cost an estimated US$110 million (S$150 million).

    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 period of intense mourning - was largely blamed on the ship's illegal redesign and overloading. But it also laid bare deeper-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 yesterday neared the scene of the accident off the southern island of Jindo, 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 representing 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 a high school in Ansan city, when it sank. Only 75 students survived.

    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 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.

    The leader of Ms Park's ruling Saenuri Party, Yoo Seung Min, travelled to Jindo to take part in a memorial gathering yesterday, after the families returned from the accident site.

    But he and other officials were pushed away from the venue, with some of the relatives screaming: "How dare you come to this place!"