Salvage operators have lifted the Sewol ferry, three years after it tragically sunk off South Korea's southwestern coast with the loss of over 300 lives. Raising the vessel had been a key demand of the victims' families.
Some 450 salvage workers in South Korea on Thursday completed one of the largest and most complex ship raising operations ever attempted, lifting the sunken 6,825-tonne Sewol vessel up from 40 meters below the waves off the country's southwestern coast.
Two enormous barges were positioned either side of the ferry, while 66 cables connected to a frame of metal beams were attached underneath the vessel as part of an operation that spanned months.
Throughout Thursday morning, the Sewol ferry began to slowly emerge from the waters until, at 7am local time (2200 Wednesday UTC), workers were able to climb on it to further fasten it to the barges.
The operation brought a sense of closure to the families of 304 victims who died when the vessel sank on April 16, 2014 - one of the country's worst-ever maritime disasters that proved to be altogether avoidable.
Almost all the victims on the Sewol were school children. The bodies of 295 were recovered but nine still remain missing. Relatives of those missing hope the remains will be recovered inside the vessel.
For that reason, raising the ferry had been key a demand of the affected families. Several gathered on Thursday morning to watch the rusted structure be lifted up.
"To see the Sewol again, I can't describe how I'm feeling right now," said Huh Hong-Hwan, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed in the accident, although her body is one of the few that has not yet been found.
Lee Geum-hee, the mother of another missing student, told a television crew: "We just want one thing - for the ship to be pulled up so that we can take our children home."
Once the vessel has been fully lifted, it will be mounted onto a semi-submersible ship and carried to the port of Mokpo. Lee Cheoljo, an official from South Korea's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, estimated that the entire process would 12 to 13 days.
A country traumatized
The Sewol disaster deeply traumatized South Korea and badly damaged the credibility of the recently-ousted president, Park Geun-hye.
During the first crucial hours of the accident, Park reportedly stayed in her residence and out of reach, while officials frantically sent updates and sought guidance. She has never explained what she did in the seven hours in which she failed to respond, sparking rumors of a tryst and that she was undergoing cosmetic surgery.
As a result, a permanent protest site was set up around the center of Seoul with effigies of Park's head hanging alongside photographs of the victims.
Park was formally removed from office by South Korea's Constitutional Court this month. She is currently under criminal investigation over allegations of extortion and favoritism.
Subsequent investigations showed that the incident was namely man-made and completely avoidable. Illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay, inexperienced crew and a questionable relationship between the ship operators and state regulators all contributed to the ship's sinking.
Investigations also found that, while the ship took some three hours to sink, no evacuation signal was heard and crew members were among the first to leave the ship.
The Sewol ferry's captain, Lee Jun-Seok, was sentenced to life in prison for committing homicide through "willful negligence" while 14 other crew members were handed sentences raising from two to 12 years.
dm/jr (AP, AFP)