The top of the sunken ferry Sewol has reached a height of 27 feet above the surface, leaving only 15 feet to go before salvors can bring her back into port. But the salvage has run into an unexpected problem: a vehicle loading ramp on the ferry's side is hanging free below the vessel. The dangling ramp would interfere with setting the wreck down onto the deck of a heavy lift ship, the next stage of the salvage process, and divers are working to cut the obstruction free so that work can continue.
Government spokesman Lee Cheoljo said on Thursday that the workers don't have much time, as surface currents at the site will strengthen on Saturday. The area of the wreck site is well known for dangerous tidal currents, a major complication for the long-running salvage effort.
Over 300 people died in the Sewol tragedy, and families of the victims have gathered near the scene of the salvage to mourn the loss of their loved ones and to hope for the recovery of nine missing passengers. “I shouted when I saw the ferry revealed above the water, thinking that my child can finally return home,” said Lee Keum-hui, who lost her daughter in the sinking.
Many of the family members expressed frustration with delays in the operation; it has been almost three years since the Sewol went down, and authorities expected the vessel to be back on the surface by July 2016. "Nothing has been done for the past three years and now finally the ferry is being salvaged," said family member Lim Won-yo in an interview with Korea Herald. "If it was this easy, why has it not been salvaged for the past years? Why only now?"
The salvage effort, which began in 2015, could be the deepest lift of a complete vessel ever attempted. The government commissioned the complex operation due to public pressure from the victims’ families, who wanted to maximize the chance of recovering nine missing bodies.
To bring the entire vessel to the surface at once without damage, the salvors partially lifted the wreck with a floating shearlegs and placed massive lifting beams underneath it. Despite challenging subsurface conditions, divers have also enclosed openings in the hull to make sure that human remains inside do not drift out. This week, when surface currents and weather conditions were just right, they connected the lifting beams to strand jacks on two barges and began hoisting the vessel to the surface.