Salvage teams load disaster ferry Sewol on transport vessel
Salvage crews have loaded the South Korean ferry which sank in 2014, killing 304 people, on to a semi-submersible transport vessel, completing the most difficult part of the massive effort to bring the ship back to shore.
Government officials say it will take a week or two to bring the Sewol to a port 55 miles away so investigators can search for the remains of nine missing victims .
Most of the victims were students on a high school trip when the 6,800-ton ferry capsized on April 16 2014, triggering national grief and soul searching about long-ignored public safety and regulatory failures.
Public outrage over what was seen as a botched rescue by the government contributed to the recent ousting of Park Geun-hye as president.
"We just got over one hump ... we are trying hard to stay calm," Lee Geum-hee, the mother of a missing schoolgirl, said.
Bringing the Sewol back to the port in Mokpo would be a step towards finding closure to one of the country's deadliest disasters.
Once the ferry reaches land, government officials say it would take about a month for the ship to be cleaned and evaluated for safety.
Investigators will then enter the wreckage and begin a three-month search for the remains of the missing victims and for clues further illuminating the cause of the sinking, which has been blamed on overloaded cargo, improper storage and other negligence.
Workers on two barges began the salvaging operation on Wednesday night, rolling up 66 cables connected to a frame of metal beams divers spent months placing beneath the ferry, which had been lying on its left side under 144 feet of water.
Relatives of the missing victims, some of whom who were watching from two fishing boats just outside the operation area, cried as the blue-and-white right side of the ferry, rusty and scratched and its painted name "SEWOL" no longer visible, emerged from the waters on Thursday morning.
By Friday evening, workers managed to raise the ship 42 feet above the water surface so that they could load it on to the semi-submersible, heavy lift vessel that was about two miles away.
The timing of the move was vital because dangerous water currents were forecast to worsen on Saturday.
Five towing vessels slowly pulled the two barges with the partially-raised Sewol tied between them.
They had placed the Sewol on the vessel's submerged dock by 4.10am local time on Saturday, according to the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
Lee Cheoljo, a ministry official, said workers would spend several hours disconnecting the Sewol from the barges by removing the wires.
They plan to lift the dock and fully raise the Sewol from the water by the end of Saturday before emptying it of water and fuel.
The journey to the Mokpo port could be shorter than the initial two-week estimate, depending on weather and other conditions.
But victims' relatives and government officials disagree on how to proceed with the searches.
The government favours cutting off the passenger cabin area and raising it upright before searching for the missing victims, while families fear that cutting into the ship might harm any remains.
A group representing the families has also demanded that it be part of an investigation committee that will be formed to further study the cause of the ship's sinking.
Many bereaved family members and their supporters want a more thorough investigation into the government's responsibility over the sinking, questioning why more senior officials have not been held accountable.
The ferry's captain is serving a life prison sentence for committing homicide through "wilful negligence" because he fled the ship without ordering an evacuation.
Accusations that Ms Park was out of contact for several hours on the day of the sinking were included in the impeachment bill Parliament passed in December.
She was formally removed from office this month and is under criminal investigation over suspicions that she conspired with a confidante to extort money and favours from companies and allow the friend to secretly interfere with state affairs.