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South Korea Tries To Raise Sewol Ferry Nearly 3 Years After Deadly Sinking

Mar 23, 2017

Almost three years ago, the ferry Sewol sank in rough seas off South Korea. More than 300 people perished, mostly high school students on a field trip.

Now, South Korea's government is trying to raise what's left of the 6,800-ton ship. As NPR's Elise Hu reports from Seoul, nine of the people who were aboard that day in April 2014 remain missing, and families hope to recover those bodies once the Sewol has been lifted out of the water and put in dry dock.

Dozens of divers are involved in the salvage operation, Elise says.

Crews had the ship partway out of the water when their efforts hit what could be a significant snag.

An official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, Lee Cheoljo, told reporters that workers have discovered that a vehicle ramp is dangling from the Sewol's left side, according to The Associated Press. Until the ramp is cut away, crews can't load the ferry onto the semi-submersible heavy-lift vessel that would carry it into port. Cheoljo said divers will need to remove the ramp using welding equipment, and that it's vital to finish the work in enough time for the ferry to be loaded by midnight Friday.

The mission is up against impending weather — currents are expected to strengthen on Saturday. Workers had hoped to finish the job Thursday morning, but they hit an earlier snag when the Sewol began rubbing against the pulleys and equipment on the barges lifting it, requiring the workers to rebalance it.

Some family members of the dead and missing watched the crews try to raise the ship. The Associated Press reports that some cried as they watched the wreckage through 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."

In addition to searching for the bodies of the missing, there are also plans to form an investigation committee to better understand what caused the ferry to sink on April 16, 2014. Investigators found that the ship was carrying twice the legal limit of cargo when it sank; the captain and crew were rescued, but the students were told to stay in place, costing many lives, Elise reports. The ferry's captain was sentenced to life in prison after an appeals court found him guilty of committing "murder through willful negligence."

The project to salvage the ship in one piece comes after the recent ouster of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn is temporarily running the government until the results of a presidential by-election on May 9.

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