ANSAN, South Korea — As parents of the dead wept, more than 70 teenagers who survived a ferry sinking that killed hundreds of their schoolmates walked in a somber procession Wednesday to their first classes since the April disaster.
Some of the 73 students, wearing white and black uniforms and carrying book bags, bowed their heads as they cried and walked slowly from a bus to the school entrance. Some stopped to hug the parents of their friends, who caressed their hair and faces. Adults carried banners of encouragement. One read: “I love you.” A large placard, which reads “We pray the dead will rest in peace,” was hung up on the school entrance gate.
The anger, grief and deep remorse at Danwon High School in Ansan, outside of Seoul, was a reflection of what many South Koreans have felt since the April 16 sinking that left more than 300 people dead or missing. Of the 325 students on a class trip to the southern holiday island of Jeju, 75 were rescued, 245 died and 5 are still missing. Two of those rescued had already returned to school, officials said.
The return to classes of the survivors, who had been staying at a facility in Ansan where they had classes and therapy sessions, comes amid court hearings for the ferry crew and the officials from the company that owned it. Many South Koreans also fault the government, the coast guard and even society for failing the victims.
“We ask for a thorough investigation to find out why our friends and teachers had to become victims and why the rescue efforts didn’t proceed properly and led to more victims,” one of the surviving students, Shin Young-jin, said in an emotional address. “We hope that you will try to create a safer nation so that such a horrible accident never happens again.”
After decades of negligence, many South Koreans are now questioning the country’s history of ignoring safety issues as it pursued rapid economic development above all else following the devastation of the Korean War, which began 64 years ago Wednesday with a North Korean invasion.
The government of President Park Geun-hye, whose dictator father ruled during the economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s that was dubbed the “Miracle on the Han,” after the river that cuts through Seoul, has been battered by criticism that it should have done more before the sinking on safety and monitoring issues and that its incompetence botched the rescue operations.
The 15 crew members responsible for navigating the Sewol ferry face charges of negligence for failing to perform their duties to rescue passengers. Prosecutors say they abandoned the ship even though they knew passengers would be trapped and killed when the ferry sank. The defense has denied any collusion, saying the crew members were confused, injured and panicked.
Shin, the student, said that many people have tried to console the surviving students, but others have asked “unpleasant” questions that have reminded them of the sinking and made them feel guilty. He said some people were even “burying daggers in our hearts” by saying that the survivors “betrayed” their classmates by coming back alive. “Whenever we heard such things, our hearts tore apart and ached and we shed tears because we felt guilty and sorry for our friends.”
“Just as we cannot forget them, we ask that the citizens of this country also never forget them,” Shin said of the dead, stopping at one point as tears choked his words. “For the adults who lead us, we ask that you exhaustively search for those responsible for this crime.”
Associated Press writers Foster Klug and Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this story from Seoul.