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Grief, anger at memorial for Korea ferry student victims

By AFP - Apr 23,2014 - Last updated at Apr 23,2014

ANSAN, South Korea — Thousands of mourners paid tearful respects Wednesday at a temporary memorial to the hundreds of student victims of South Korea’s ferry disaster, as the grim search for bodies entered a second week.

The confirmed death toll stood at 150, but 152 were still unaccounted for, their bodies believed trapped in the inverted, submerged ship that sank a week ago in circumstances that have yet to be fully explained.

As the relatives of the missing began their daily vigil at the harbour on Jindo island, where bodies recovered from the disaster site are brought, others converged on a temporary memorial to the victims in Ansan, 320 kilometres to the north.

Ansan has become a focal point of national mourning. The city is home to the Danwon High School which had 352 students and a dozen teachers on the Sewol when it capsized.

Nearly 280 students are among the dead and missing.

The memorial, set up in an indoor sports stadium, was opened Wednesday and comprised a giant altar in the form of a terraced bank of flowers — white, yellow and green chrysanthemums — among which rested the framed pictures and names of students whose funerals have already taken place.

Above the floral wall a large banner carried the message: “We pray for the souls of the departed.”

Mourners, clutching single white chrysanthemums handed out by volunteers, wept, bowed and prayed as they stood before the altar before placing their flowers below the students’ pictures.

There was anger as well as grief. One woman railed tearfully against the authorities for not saving more people, while one large floral tribute carried a sash with the simple message: “I hate the Republic of Korea.”

Among the 6,500 mourners who passed through the memorial during the day, were many schoolchildren in uniform, some of whom broke down and had to be helped out of the stadium.

Across the road in Danwon High School, bouquets of flowers had been placed on the desks of empty classrooms, while sad, handwritten messages of loss and remembrance were plastered on walls and windows.

Hong Hyun-ju, a grief counsellor working with the school, said the teaching staff was as traumatised as the student body.

North Korea, which has barely referenced the ferry disaster over the past week, sent its condolences Wednesday via a Red Cross channel used for inter-Korean communications.

The message voiced sorrow that “so many passengers, including young students, died or went missing,” the South’s Unification Ministry said.

In Jindo harbour, the latest bodies recovered from the ferry were taken to a small tented village set up to manage the process of identifying the bodies.

“I’m here to help you recognise the dead,” a forensic official told a group of relatives called to the site because ID documents or distinguishing features indicated their family member might be among those brought ashore.

“We have cleaned the bodies, but did not take their clothes and socks off so that you can recognise them more easily,” the official said, before leading them into a separate, closed-off section.

Each positive identification was marked by a piercing cry of anguished recognition and an outpouring of grief from the family members — most of them middle-aged parents.

The Sewol’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, and six crew members are under arrest with two other crew taken into police custody on Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning prosecutors raided a host of businesses affiliated with the ferry operator, the Chonghaejin Marine Company.

The raid was part of a probe into “overall corruption in management”, Kim Hoe-jong, a prosecutor on the case, told AFP.

More than 70 executives and other people connected with Chonghaejin and its affiliates have been issued 30-day travel bans while they are investigated on possible charges ranging from criminal negligence to embezzlement.

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