ANSAN, SOUTH KOREA – Holding hands as they walked through the school gates, some fighting back tears, 75 children who survived South Korea’s worst maritime disaster in 20 years returned to class on Wednesday pledging to remember their lost friends.
Wailing parents of the 250 children who did not survive, when a ferry taking them on a school trip capsized and sank, greeted the children outside the Danwon High School.
Some grieving parents held signs, one of which read: “We love you.”
“Grown-ups are constantly telling us to forget and cheer up,” said an 18-year-old boy who spoke for the survivors as he fought back tears.
“But we will remember and recollect our friends. Because not forgetting them is what we can do at best. Just as we will remember them, please don’t forget them,” he said.
Two months after the Sewol ferry sank, killing more than 300 passengers, the surviving children were brought to school in five buses under a police escort.
Many were wearing bracelets engraved with the slogan “Remember 0416,” and all were accompanied by their parents.
On April 16, the Sewol ferry began to list and then capsized on a routine overnight journey from Incheon, a port city one hour from the children’s hometown, to the vacation island of Jeju.
It was likely overloaded and took a turn at speed, which caused poorly secured cargo to shift.
The crew initially ordered passengers to remain in their cabins. Many of the 325 students followed the order and became trapped as the vessel rolled over, paying for their obedience with their lives.
“Our friends and teachers had to leave us because of irresponsible and selfish adults,” said one of the students before going to class.
The 15 surviving crew members are on trial. Four of them, including the captain, are charged with homicide, amid a national outcry of anger after video footage showed them fleeing the vessel after telling passengers to stay put.
The government of President Park Geun-hye has been criticized for its slow and ineffective handling of the disaster and poor results in the rescue operation.
The prime minister has resigned and Park has announced the breakup of the Coast Guard, citing incompetence.
A massive manhunt has failed to capture the man seen as the effective owner of the company that operated the ferry. Yoo Byung-un is wanted on charges of embezzlement stemming from his control over a web of business interests owned by his sons, including Chonghaejin Marine, the ferry operator.
For the survivors and their parents, the two months since the sinking has been a painful time of soul searching, debating whether to transfer to other schools.
But they ultimately decided to return to the familiar surrounds of Danwon Highschool and try and heal the emotional scars, receiving therapy at the school, said Park Suk-soon, the father of one of the survivors.
“The kids are coming back to school, carrying the terrible experience of having gone through the ship sinking and the evacuation and losing their friends and teachers,” he said.
“Don’t forget April 16,” he added.