SEOUL • A South Korean ferry that sank nearly three years ago, killing more than 300 people - most of them teenagers on a school trip - was raised to the surface yesterday.
It was an emotional moment for families still looking for their missing children and a step towards closing one of the most traumatic episodes in South Korea's history.
Mr Lim Won Yo, 55, father of Yo Han, a student victim from Danwon High School, said his heart was pounding as he watched the ferry being lifted above water.
"But at the same time, I am frustrated. Nothing has been done for the past three years and now finally the ferry is being salvaged. If it was this easy, why has it not been salvaged for the past years? Why only now?" he said.
The ferry, the 6,825-ton Sewol, capsized and sank off the south-western tip of South Korea on April 16, 2014. The accident was the country's worst catastrophe in decades and contributed to the recent ouster of president Park Geun Hye.
The ferry went under while teenagers trapped inside sent text messages asking for help that never came or saying goodbye to their families.
A months-long underwater search of the ferry ended after 295 bodies were recovered. Nine people who were on board remain missing, including four students and two teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, south of Seoul.
Of the 324 students from the school on board for a field trip, 250 drowned. Bereaved families have demanded that the ferry be salvaged, hoping that the bodies of the missing would be found inside. They also hoped that the wreckage would reveal more clues as to what caused the ferry to sink.
Government investigators have blamed overloading, the ferry's structural imbalance and poor decisions by the crew for the disaster.
In 2015, the government announced plans to raise the ferry, contracting a consortium of Chinese and South Korean salvage crews for the US$76 million (S$106 million) operation. Their work has been painstakingly slow because of strong currents, frequent periods of bad weather, poor underwater visibility and the complicated engineering manoeuvres needed to raise the ferry, which was lying on its side about 40m below the surface.
Divers spent months placing 33 lifting beams underneath the ferry and tying cables to both ends. After days of testing, two salvage barges began pulling up the cables on Wednesday, raising the ferry slowly.
By yesterday morning, its mud-covered, rusting hull broke through the surface, and workers began fastening the ferry to the barges.
Family members of the victims watched the operation overnight from a government ship.
"I shouted when I saw the ferry being revealed above the water, thinking that my child can finally return home," said Ms Lee Keum Hui, mother of student victim Jo Eun Hwa, on the ship some 1.7km away from the scene.
In the next couple of weeks, the ferry will be transferred to a semi-submersible vessel, which will lift it out of the water completely and carry it to Mokpo, a port 87km away. There, officials will conduct a thorough search.
NYTIMES, KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK