A 6,800-tonne South Korean ferry was hoisted to the surface on Thursday nearly three years after it capsized and sank into violent seas off the country’s southwestern coast, an emotional moment for the country as it searches for closure to one of its deadliest disasters.
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. 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.
Workers on two barges began the salvaging operation on Wednesday 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 side in about 44 metres (145 feet) of water.
By 3:45am, Sewol’s stabiliser surfaced from the water. About an hour later, the blue-and-white right side of the ship, rusty and scratched and its painted name “SEWOL” no longer visible, emerged for the first time in more than 1,000 days.
By about 7am, the ferry had been raised enough for workers to climb on it and fasten it further to the barges. As of 5pm, the top of the ferry was about 8.5 metres (27 feet) above the water’s surface.
The bodies of 295 passengers were recovered after the sinking, but nine are still missing. Relatives, some of whom were watching from two fishing boats just outside the operation area, hope those remains will be found inside the ferry. Some cried as they took turns watching the emerging wreckage with telescopes.
“I shouted in joy when we heard that the ship surfaced at dawn. I thought we finally can find the missing nine,” Lee Geum-hee, the mother of a missing school girl, told a television crew.
“But when I actually saw the ship coming up, I was devastated. All this time my poor child was in that cold, dirty place. It was heart wrenching.”
Lee Cheoljo, an official from the ministry of oceans and fisheries, said workers need to raise the ferry until its upper side is about 13 metres (42 feet) above the surface.