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S. Korean President Vows to Raise Sunken Ferry

A woman looks at caricatures of the victims of the sunken ferry Sewol outside a group memorial altar in Ansan, South Korea, Thursday, April 16, 2015.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has vowed to raise the Sewol ferry, agreeing to a key demand of the families of the 304 people who died when the vessel sank last year.

The president's comments came in a speech Thursday to mark the one-year anniversary of the sinking of the overloaded Sewol, which capsized during a routine turn off the southwest coast of South Korea.

The boat, which was carrying mostly high school students, remains submerged upside down in the same location where it sank - a reminder of one of the country's worst maritime disasters.

"I think now is the time for us to be prepared for the ship salvage," the president said. "We'll make all necessary procedures promptly so that the ship can be raised as soon as possible."

President Park also vowed to locate the bodies of the nine passengers who remain missing.

Earlier Thursday during a visit to a memorial site, many victims' family members had refused to meet with the president until she agreed to raise the ship.

The government has faced steady pressure to extract the 6,825-ton ferry from the sea floor to help bring closure to the victims and determine the exact cause of the accident.

South Korean lawmakers on Thursday passed a resolution, by a vote of 161 to 2, calling for the government to raise the Sewol. The recovery would help in "healing the minds of the victims, survivors and bereaved families," the resolution said.

Thousands of South Koreans were expected to attend vigils Thursday across the country to remember those who died. Flags were lowered to half-staff. A minute of silence was also observed.

"It is a shame and it breaks my heart that no one wants to take responsibility, even though one year has passed since the Sewol ferry disaster," said Kim Hee-Eun, who was visiting a makeshift memorial in Seoul.

The government has acknowledged that corruption and lax safety standards contributed to the tragedy. But it had been reluctant to raise the ship, saying such an operation would take months and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

South Korean courts have already given jail sentences to the head of the company that operated the ferry. The Chonghaejin Marine CEO was found guilty of negligence for allowing the Sewol to be overloaded and improperly stored with cargo.

The Sewol's captain and 15 other crew were also received from five to 36 years in prison for abandoning the vessel.