SEOUL, South Korea – Salvage crews towed a corroded 6,800-ton South Korean ferry toward a transport vessel on Friday after it was successfully raised from waters off the country's southwest coast. The massive attempt to bring the ferry back to shore, nearly three years after it sank, killing 304 people, is being closely watched by a nation that still vividly remembers the horrific accident.
Most of the victims of the Sewol's capsize on April 16, 2014, were students on a high school trip, 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.
Workers planned to complete loading the ferry onto a semi-submersible transport vessel by midnight Friday. The waters where the ferry sank are notorious for dangerous currents, which are forecast to strengthen on Saturday.
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. They hit a snag Thursday night when they discovered an unlocked vehicle ramp dangling from the ship, but divers managed to cut it off by Friday morning.
The bodies of 295 people 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 watched the emerging wreckage with telescopes.
Once the Sewol is loaded on the transport vessel, it will take about two weeks for it to reach a port 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.
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.