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Kwon Oh-hyun, whose younger brother didn’t make it off the ferry.
Kwon Oh-hyun, whose younger brother didn’t make it off the ferry.
Jason Strother

ANSAN — It's been over three months since the South Korean Sewol ferry capsized, killing 300 passengers onboard. It was a tragedy that sparked government reforms and national soul searching. But understandably, it's been much more challenging for the families of the victims, almost all of whom attended the same high school.

The temporary memorial that was created after the April 16 ferry disaster is a giant, air-conditioned tent with an enormous alter that holds framed pictures of the high school students who died when the ship went down.

Flowers have been laid out in front of them, and there are packages of food. A note from a mother of one of the children says that she hopes to see her son again one day.

Here, 27-year-old Kwon Oh-hyun points to the portrait of his younger brother, pictured in his school uniform. His name was Kwon Oh-chun, and he was 16 years old.

"For about 15 years, we shared the same room, even the same bed," Kwon says. "Right after he passed away, it was very difficult for me to sleep in that room. For about a week or so, I ended up sleeping in my car. I couldn't bear to go back into that room."

The memorial here in Ansan is the center of grieving for the entire country. It's also the place where the families of the victims come to try to find solace. Tents are set up outside that offer various services for these relatives. Among them, legal advice.

"The parents who come here want to know how they can get support from the government, especially for single parents or how to take their childrens' pictures down off of websites," says attorney Jo Ah-ra.

But Kwon Oh-hyun, who acts as a spokesperson for families of the Sewol victims, says many of the relatives need more than just legal advice. Following the accident, many quit their jobs. He says some just stay home and mourn. The government is helping, but it might not be enough.

"The government is giving us some living support and psychological counseling," he says. "But this type of help is limited. We only get two months of stipend. And the trauma counseling is only for one year. Does that mean we re supposed to feel better a year from now?"

Some might not feel closure until it is finally determined what caused the ferry to sink. Kwon says they hope that some answers will come during the pre-trial court hearings now underway.

Making the crew accountable

South Korean television aired footage of Sewol captain Lee Joon-seok being led handcuffed into court. He and three other crew members have been charged with negligent homicide. If convicted, they could spend the rest of their lives in jail, or even face the death penalty.

Kwon Oh-hyun says family members have been attending the court hearings. And what they've seen so far isn't sitting well with them.

"Some of the defendants have been falling asleep inside the court," Kwon says. "I think some of us would really like to just beat them up."

But despite those emotions, he says he'll wait until all the evidence is in before making his own judgment, adding that he doubts the accident can be blamed solely on the captain.

"It's difficult to point to a single individual or entity to blame for this disaster," he says. "I feel that the fundamental fault lies with the government system. The coast guard wasn't properly trained to handle this emergency. The Chonghaejin Marine Company also didn't prepare their crew to respond properly to this kind of situation. It was an overall lack of safety standards in this country."

But perhaps the most significant evidence against the Sewol crew might come from the survivors themselves. Some have already testified confidentially in court about what they experienced when the boat went down.

Their experience was no doubt similar to that of 17-year-old Kwon Ji-hyuk, with whom I spoke shortly after the April disaster.

"I was on the fourth floor on the boat," he recalls. "There were 60 to 70 people with me. The water started rising. Since I was in front of the ship, I saw the water coming. When I saw it, I yelled to my friends to jump, and I jumped. Only about 10 people jumped. The rest stayed. The water came really fast. The ship sank fast."

For him, it's clear who's to blame.

"I'm really angry at the ferry crew. If we had had the right directions, then maybe more of my friends on the fourth floor would have survived. We had no idea what to do. All I could do was just jump off the boat."

As for Kwon Oh-hyun, whose younger brother didn't make it off the ferry, he says he and his family are doing the best they can to cope with their loss.

"It's not been easy for my family," he says. "Last year our father died, and we weren't even over that when my brother was killed. We have felt absolutely devastated. But now, our lives have been getting back to normal. My mother is working again, and I am doing what I can to work with the families of the other victims. I hope what I am doing helps the investigation into what happened. It was an accident that should have been prevented."

Kwon hopes that by doing his part for the victims' families, it will help his brother and all his classmates rest in peace.

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