Nearly three years after it capsized and sank into the violent seas off South Korea’s southwestern coast, workers slowly pulled up the 6,800-ton ferry Sewol from the water today, an emotional moment for a country that continues to search for closure to one of its deadliest disasters ever.
More than 300 people most of whom were students on a high school trip died when the Sewol sank on April 16, 2014, touching off an outpouring of national grief and soul searching about long-ignored public safety and regulatory failures.
The public outrage over what was seen as a botched rescue job by the government contributed to the recent ouster of Park Geun-hye as president.
After hours of tests and preparations, workers on two barges began the salvaging operation last night, rolling up 66 cables connected to a frame of metal beams divers spent months putting beneath the ferry, which had been lying on its left side in about 40 meters of water.
By today morning, the right side of Sewol rose above the surface, allowing workers to climb on it and further fasten the ferry to the barges, according to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
Salvage crews will load the ferry onto a semi-submersible, heavy-lift vessel that will carry it to a mainland port. The loading process, including emptying the ferry of water and fuel, is expected to take days.
The bodies of 295 passengers were recovered after the sinking on April 16, 2014, but nine are still missing.
Relatives, some of whom who are watching from a fishing boat just outside the operation area, are hoping that those remains will be found inside the ferry.
Once the ferry reaches a port nearly 90 kilometers away in the city of Mokpo, in around two weeks, workers will begin clearing the mud and debris and search for the remains of the missing victims.
An investigation committee will also be formed to search for clues that could further explain the cause of the sinking, which has been blamed on overloaded cargo, improper storage and other negligence.
The ferry’s captain survived and is serving a life sentence after a court found him guilty of committing homicide through “willful negligence” because he fled the ship without issuing an evacuation order.
Park was forced to defend herself against accusations that she was out of contact for several hours on the day of the sinking. The allegations were included in an impeachment bill lawmakers passed against Park in December, amid broader corruption suspicions.
Park was formally removed from office by the Constitutional Court earlier this month. She is now under criminal investigation over suspicions that she conspired with a confidante to extort money and favors from companies and allow the friend to secretly interfere with state affairs.
South Korea in 2015 agreed to an 85.1 billion won (USD 76 million) deal with a consortium led by China’s state-run Shanghai Salvage Co to raise the Sewol.