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Sewol South Korea begins raising sunken ferry

Emotional parents of victims urged people to pray for a successful recovery.

  • Published: , Refreshed:
Barges during a salvage project to bring the sunken Sewol ferry back to surface in the sea off the southwestern island of Jindo play

Barges during a salvage project to bring the sunken Sewol ferry back to surface in the sea off the southwestern island of Jindo

(South Korean Maritime Ministry/AFP)

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Salvage operators began raising South Korea's sunken Sewol ferry Wednesday, officials said, nearly three years after the disaster killed more than 300 people and dealt a crippling blow to now-ousted president Park Geun-Hye.

Emotional parents of victims -- the vast majority of the dead in the country's worst-ever maritime tragedy were schoolchildren -- urged people to pray for a successful recovery.

The vessel was lying more than 40 metres (130 feet) below the waves off southwestern South Korea and the operation, originally scheduled for last year, had been pushed back several times because of adverse weather.

Raising the Sewol sunken ferry play

Raising the Sewol sunken ferry

(AFP)

It is thought that nine bodies still unaccounted for may be trapped inside the sunken ship, and raising the ferry intact has been a key demand of the victims' families.

"I am a mother who just really misses her daughter. Please pray for us so we can go home with Eun-Hwa," said Lee Keum-Hui, one of a handful of relatives who have been living in makeshift homes at Paengmok, the closest port to the wreck, since the accident.

"We will be grateful if you pray with us so that the last remaining victims can return to their families," she said, breaking down.

A monk bowed in prayer before a memorial to victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, at Paengmok harbour on the southern island of Jindo play

A monk bowed in prayer before a memorial to victims of the Sewol ferry disaster, at Paengmok harbour on the southern island of Jindo

(AFP)

Other bereaved family members have been maintaining a vigil at a camp on a hilltop on Donggeochado, the nearest island to the site, just 1.5 kilometres away.

Yellow ribbons -- a symbol for the victims of the deadly disaster -- hang on nearby trees, their colour faded by the course of time.

"My heart is pounding," said father Jung Seong-Wook of the decision to go ahead with the lift. "I have mixed feelings that I cannot put into words. I'm also a little scared."

In a tense atmosphere during the day, another father nervously watched through binoculars, trying to get a glimpse of the operation. Some 50 bereaved family members went out to sea by boat to watch the proceedings, he added.

More than 300 people -- most of them schoolchildren -- died when the Sewol ferry sank in April 2014 (depicted at the time of the incident). A test lift of the vessel began Wednesday, with several bodies still unaccounted for play

More than 300 people -- most of them schoolchildren -- died when the Sewol ferry sank in April 2014 (depicted at the time of the incident). A test lift of the vessel began Wednesday, with several bodies still unaccounted for

(South Korea Coast Guard/AFP/File)

Two enormous barges were positioned on either side of the 6,825-tonne ship and air bags inserted for the salvage effort, which is being led by a Chinese consortium.

Beams were installed by digging through the seabed underneath the wreck, which was lying on its side, and cables attached to bring it painstakingly towards the surface.

Once two-thirds of it is exposed, a semi-submersible will be positioned underneath to raise it out of the water and transport it to the port of Mokpo to carry out investigations and search for the missing.

Wilful negligence

A senior official from the maritime ministry said it took three hours to raise the wreck one metre off the seabed in what was initially a feasibility test.

The ministry then decided to go ahead with the full lifting, it said in a statement. The operation is expected to take three days.

The disaster and its aftermath gripped South Korea and overshadowed the presidency of Park, who stayed at her residence for seven hours in the crucial initial phase of the sinking.

She has never specified what she was doing, sparking wild rumours including a tryst and cosmetic surgery.

A permanent Sewol protest site targeting her was subsequently set up in the centre of Seoul, with effigies of the head of state on display alongside pictures of dead schoolchildren.

Negligence over the sinking was one of the grounds for which parliament impeached Park in December, although the constitutional court ruled that it was not an impeachable offence when it upheld her dismissal on other charges earlier this month.

Donggeochado island has a population of only around 300, but the once-a-day ferry to it was packed with reporters Wednesday and at least one outside broadcast truck.

Investigations into the disaster, in which 304 people died, concluded it was largely man-made -- the cumulative result of an illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay, inexperienced crew and a questionable relationship between the ship operators and state regulators.

Even though the vessel took around three hours to sink, those on board were never ordered to evacuate, while the crew escaped to safety.

Captain Lee Jun-Seok was sentenced to life in prison for "murder through wilful negligence" and 14 other crew members given terms ranging from two to 12 years.

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