SEOUL, South Korea – A corroding 6,800-ton ferry raised from the bottom of the sea last week arrived at a South Korean port Friday, where it will be searched for the remains of nine missing passengers from a 2014 sinking that killed 304.
Relatives of the victims watched from nearby as workers from a port in Mokpo conducted operations to dock the heavy lift transport vessel that carried the ferry Sewol, lying with its rusty blue bottom facing toward land.
Finding the remains of the missing victims would bring a measure of closure to one of the country's deadliest disasters.
Most of those who died when the Sewol sank on April 16, 2014, were teenagers on a school trip, triggering a national outpouring of grief and outrage over what was seen as poor rescue efforts by the government. The anger contributed to the ouster of President Park Geun-hye, who earlier on Friday was arrested over allegations of corruption.
"He was in the dark and frightening deep seas for three years, but he's now going to Mokpo," Yoo Baek-hyeong, the wife of a missing teacher, told reporters on a patrol boat where they watched the transport vessel depart for port.
"I want to find even just a piece of his hair. He would have been wearing his wedding ring ... I want to find all of those things," she said.
Salvage crews on two barges completed a massive operation raising the Sewol from sea last week, rolling up nearly 70 cables connected to metal beams divers spent months installing beneath the ferry, which was lying on its left side under 44 meters (144 feet) of water.
Once the Sewol arrives at port, it's expected to take several days for workers to disconnect it from the transport vessel, where it had been welded in place in order to maintain balance during the trip, and further empty it of water and fuel.
The ferry will then be moved to a dry dock where workers are expected to spend weeks cleaning it and evaluating it for safety.
Investigators will then begin searching for the remains of the missing victims and for clues that could further explain the cause of the sinking, which has been blamed on excessive cargo, improper storage and other negligence.
According to the oceans ministry, the searches will be conducted by a team of 100 government investigators, including experts from the National Forensic Service. An eight-member civilian panel was formed to monitor their efforts.
There are disagreements over how to proceed with the searches, which could take months.
Government officials favor cutting off the ferry's passenger cabin areas and raising them upright before searching for the missing victims, which they say would improve efficiency and also be safer for the investigators. Families fear that cutting into the ship might harm any victims' remains.