SEOUL, South Korea – A 6,800-ton South Korean ferry was hoisted to the surface Thursday nearly three years after it capsized and sank in 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.
But just when it seemed that the salvaging operation was going smoothly, workers discovered that a vehicle ramp was unlocked and dangling from the ship’s left side. That forced a delay that could jeopardize the delicate operation to transport the corroded ship back to land.
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.
Salvage crews had planned to raise the Sewol until its upper side is about 13 meters (42 feet) above the water’s surface by Thursday evening so it could be loaded onto a semi-submersible, heavy-lift vessel that would carry it to a mainland port.
Lee Cheoljo, an official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, said divers were trying to cut off the ramp with welding equipment because it wasn’t possible to fit the ferry into the transport vessel with the ramp hanging down. He said it was vital for the divers to finish the job by Friday morning so the crew will have enough time to load the ferry by midnight Friday.
The waters where the ferry sank are notorious for dangerous currents. The sea is relatively calm now, but currents are forecast to strengthen on Saturday.
Lee said the Sewol, which had been lying on its left side in about 44 meters (145 feet) of water, was 10 meters (33 feet) above surface when the lifting process was halted Thursday night.
He said workers may face a decision on whether to continue the salvaging operation if the ferry isn’t loaded on the vessel by Friday.
“All we can do now is to concentrate all the personnel and equipment we have so that the ramp is cut off by the morning of March 24,” Lee said.
Workers on two barges began the salvaging operation Wednesday night, rolling up 66 cables connected to a frame of metal beams divers spent months placing beneath the ferry.
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.”
If the Sewol is successfully loaded onto the transport vessel, it would take days to empty the ferry of water and fuel, and another two weeks for it to reach a port about 90 kilometers (55 miles) away in the city of Mokpo.
Workers will then begin clearing mud and debris and search for the remains of the missing victims. An investigation committee will also search for clues that could further explain the cause of the sinking, which has been blamed on overloaded cargo, improper storage and other negligence.
A group representing the families of the victims issued a statement demanding that it be part of the investigation committee. Many bereaved family members and their supporters have been demanding a more thorough investigation of the government’s responsibility in the sinking, questioning why higher-level officials have not been held accountable.
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.
Ousted President 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.
Salvaging the huge, corroded ferry from a channel notorious for dangerous currents has been a difficult and expensive job. South Korea agreed in 2015 to an 85.1 billion won ($76 million) deal with a consortium led by China’s state-run Shanghai Salvage Co. to do it.
While many large shipwrecks around the world have first been cut into sections to be raised, this was never an option for Sewol because there are hopes of finding the remains of the missing victims inside the wreckage.