JINDO (South Korea) • South Korea's sunken Sewol ferry was sailed away from its watery grave yesterday, beginning its final journey nearly three years after it went down with the loss of more than 300 lives.
A flotilla of powerful tugs towed the wreck, which was lying on its side on a platform between two giant salvage barges, towards a semi-submersible that will finally bring it into port.
The 145m ship was brought to the surface in a complex salvage operation believed to be among the largest recoveries ever of a wreck in one piece - a key demand of the families of the dead.
"The Sewol began its move towards the semi-submersible at 16.55 (3.55pm Singapore time)," the maritime ministry said in a statement.
The rusted, silted hull stood high out of the water, with both its white superstructure and blue bulbous bow exposed as it was taken towards the Dockwise White Marlin, a huge vessel standing by in deeper waters to take it to Mokpo on the mainland for investigations and a search. The wreckage is forecast to make it to the port as early as April 4.
Almost all the dead were schoolchildren and it is thought that nine bodies still unaccounted for may be trapped inside the sunken ship. Search operations for the bodies will be conducted inside the wreckage as well as near the site where the ship sank, with nets installed to prevent the possible loss of the missing bodies.
"Today is the last day of the neap tide and we must finish loading the Sewol to the submersible," Mr Lee Cheol Jo, a ministry official in charge of the operation, told reporters earlier, referring to when tides are at their weakest.
Around 450 workers were involved in the painstaking salvage.
The Sewol has a displacement of 6,825 tonnes, but is now estimated to weigh between 8,000 and 8,500 tonnes, including the silt inside.
The salvage came as the third anniversary approached of one of the country's worst maritime disasters, which dealt a crushing blow to ousted president Park Geun Hye. She stayed at her residence for seven hours after the disaster while officials were frantically sending updates and asking for guidance.
She has never specified what she was doing during that time, sparking wild rumours, including those of a tryst and cosmetic surgery.
A permanent Sewol protest site targeting her was subsequently set up in the centre of Seoul.
The vessel was lying more than 40m below the waves, off south-western South Korea, and the operation, originally scheduled for last year, had been pushed back several times because of adverse weather.
Investigations into the disaster, in which 304 people died, concluded that it was largely man-made - the cumulative result of an illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay, an inexperienced crew and a questionable relationship between the ship operators and state regulators.
Even though the vessel took around three hours to sink, many of those on board never heard any evacuation order, while the crew were among the first to escape to safety. Captain Lee Jun Seok was sentenced to life in prison for "murder through wilful negligence" and 14 other crew members were given jail terms ranging from two to 12 years.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA