SEOUL: More than 70 student survivors of South Korea’s ferry disaster made an emotional return on Wednesday to their high school, watched by the relatives of the hundreds who died.
More than two months after the Sewol passenger ferry capsized and sank with the loss of around 300 lives, the 74 pupils who escaped walked hand in hand as they made their way back to class for the first time.
Of the 476 people on board the Sewol, 325 were pupils from Danwon High School on an organized trip to the southern resort of island.
The death of some 250 classmates—and around a dozen teachers—devastated the school in Ansan city, just south of Seoul, and Danwon has become a symbol of the human cost of the tragedy.
“Our children’s returning to school was a choice to get back to their normal daily lives as students,” the parents of the surviving pupils said in a joint statement.
“Even though they don’t have friends and teachers with whom they studied together, we believe they will do well,” the statement said.
Many of the parents accompanied their children on Wednesday and relatives of the students who died lined the entrance to the school to show their solidarity.
Many of the survivors have undergone weeks of intense therapy to help them deal with the trauma of the disaster and the sense of guilt some felt at escaping when so many others died.
An unspecified number will testify next month in the ongoing trial of the captain of the Sewol and 14 crew members.
Captain Lee Joon-Seok and three senior crew members are accused of “homicide through wilfull negligence”—a charge that can carry the death penalty.
The 11 other defendants are being tried on lesser violations of maritime law.
Although the trial is being held in the southern city of Gwangju, the student witnesses will be allowed to testify by closed circuit television from a courtroom in Ansan.
Speaking to the press on Wednesday, one student representative pleaded for the survivors be left alone as they try to resume normal lives.
“We really hope to go back to the lives we led before the accident. Please treat us as ordinary 18-year-old boys and girls,” Yonhap news agency quoted the student as saying.
Following a brief ceremony, the children bowed to their parents and the victims’ families and then entered the school.
Dive teams on Tuesday recovered another victim of South Korea’s ferry disaster, the first to be retrieved from the sunken vessel in 16 days in an increasingly frustrating search for the last bodies.
The body was of a woman passenger, and brings the total number of confirmed victims from the April 16 disaster to 293, with 11 still unaccounted for.
The recovery operation has dragged on for more than two months, with the body retrieval rate falling off rapidly since the beginning of June.
Two divers have been killed and voices have begun to be heard calling for heavy cranes to be brought in to lift the sunken vessel.