South Korea Raises Ferry From Sea Three Years After Fatal Disaster

  • Main aim of salvage operation is to find nine missing bodies
  • Few regulatory changes implemented in wake of ferry sinking

The sunken Sewol ferry salvage operation in waters off Jindo, on March 22.

Photographer: South Korean Maritime Ministry via Getty Images

Almost three years after the Sewol ferry disaster that killed 304 people and led to calls for then-President Park Geun-hye’s resignation, South Korean authorities have raised the sunken ship to the surface.

The head of the salvage committee, Lee Cheol-jo, told a televised briefing Thursday that some 450 workers, including more than 50 divers, were involved in lifting the 8,000-ton ferry from its resting place 44 meters (144 feet) below the surface, and that he expected the operation to be finished by late afternoon or early evening.

The country’s worst maritime disaster occurred on April 16, 2014, when the five-deck ferry carrying almost 500 passengers -- mostly high school students -- capsized after turning sharply. A subsequent investigation found that the ship was carrying twice its legal load and that the ferry operator had falsified documents.

JINDO-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 16: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout provided by Donga Daily, The Republic of Korea Coast Guard work at the site of ferry sinking accident off the coast of Jindo Island  on April 16, 2014 in Jindo-gun, South Korea. Four people are confirmed dead and almost 300 are reported missing. The ferry identified as the Sewol is reported to have been carrying around 470 passengers, including students and teachers, as it travelled to Jeju island. (Photo by Park Young-Chul-Donga Daily via Getty Images)
The Sewol ferry capsized in April 2014.
Photographer: Handout/Getty Images

The priorities once the ship was recovered, said Lee Suk-tae, who led the Sewol Special Investigation Commission, were “investigating the exact cause of the sinking and collecting the bodies of those who haven’t been found yet.”

The tragedy has continued to haunt the country, with many Koreans asking whether the country’s rapid economic growth had come at the cost of regulations and safety, while the salvage operation could intensify public anger over the cozy relationship between governments and business operators.

Impeachment Fallout

Lee Suk-Tae said the subsequent corruption scandal that engulfed Park’s presidency had “helped take a step closer to uncovering the truth by raising awareness on the Sewol accident once again, but in reality there hasn’t been much regulatory or political changes since the incident,” he said.

The ferry disaster is an issue in the May 9 presidential race to replace Park, who was forced from office on March 10 after South Korea’s constitutional court upheld parliament’s vote to impeach her.

A protest near the presidential Blue House in Seoul on March 10. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

A protest near the presidential Blue House in Seoul on March 10.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Leading candidate Moon Jae-in visited the site of the ferry disaster on the day of Park’s impeachment, saying it was only when the ship sank that “people started to question what this country is all about,” Moon said.

A key charge against Park was that she had neglected her duties by not adequately overseeing the ferry rescue operations. While that was rejected in court, questions over Park’s movements in the hours following the sinking continue to dog the former president and her conservative party.

A makeshift memorial to the ferry victims continues to be on display at Seoul’s main thoroughfare, where hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered every Saturday to call for Park’s ouster.

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