First anniversary of Sewol ferry disaster: What happened and what remains unresolved

South Koreans mark the first anniversary on Thursday (April 16) of the Sewol ferry disaster which scarred the national psyche and left a lasting legacy of bitterness, mistrust and division.

For relatives of the 304 victims - especially the families of the 250 high school children who died - the past 12 months have done little to numb the pain and grief, or the anger. Here's a recap of events and what remains unresolved:

What happened?

The Sewol ferry, which was travelling from Incheon port in the north-west to the southern resort island of Jeju, capsized and sank off South Korea's southern coast on April 16, 2014, claiming 304 lives. It was the country's biggest maritime disaster in more than 40 years. Among the victims were 250 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul, who were on a field trip. The tragedy plunged the whole nation into a months-long period of intense mourning.

Why the ferry sank?


The accident was largely blamed on the ship's redesign that did not adhere to safety standards and overloading. Investigators found that a redesign in 2012 to increase cargo capacity had impaired the ship's stability, leaving it top heavy. The ferry had essentially lost its ability to maintain its balance.

At the time of the incident, the ferry was carrying 3,606 tonnes of freight and cars, more than three times its recommended maximum cargo. The ferry operators got away with it because inspectors had limited themselves to monitoring many ships from shore; so long as vessels did not sit too low in the water, the inspectors raised no questions.

The illegal redesign and overloading helped sink the ferry when it made a sharp turn in dangerous currents. But it was just one of numerous regulatory sins so serious that the country's president Park Geun Hye vowed to untangle long-tolerated collusive ties with industry that many believe were at the heart of the tragedy.

What actions have been taken?


More than 50 people have been put on trial on charges linked to the sinking, including 15 crew members - who were among the first to climb into lifeboats. Sewol's captain was jailed in November for 36 years for gross negligence and dereliction of duty, while three other senior crew members were sentenced to jail terms of between 15 and 30 years.

Safety experts and those working in the shipping industry say important changes have been made, including the passage of a law to ban government officials from taking expensive gifts and another to crack down on business owners whose companies are involved in major disasters. The second law was passed after prosecutors alleged that members of the flamboyant family who owned the Sewol had enriched themselves by illegally overloading ferries and scrimping on safety measures.

What more are families demanding?


Last week, hundreds of parents of the dead students - some with their heads shaved and clad in white mourning robes - marched 35 km to Seoul from their home town of Ansan to call on the government to bring the sunken vessel to the surface and ensure a fully independent inquiry into the disaster. A total of 295 bodies were recovered and nine victims remained unaccounted for when divers finally called off the dangerous search of its interior last November.

The government has said the raising of the vessel - if approved - will likely cost an estimated US$110 million (S$150.5 million).


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