Salvage operators were to begin a test lift of South Korea’s Sewol ferry Wednesday, officials said, nearly three years after it sank killing 304 people and dealing a crippling blow to now ousted president Park Geun-Hye.
Emotional parents of victims — the vast majority of the dead in the country’s worst-ever maritime disaster were schoolchildren — pleaded for prayers for a successful recovery.
The vessel lies more than 40 metres (130 feet) below the waves off the southwestern island of Jindo and the operation, originally scheduled for last year, has been pushed back several times because of adverse weather conditions.
It is thought that nine bodies still unaccounted for may be trapped inside the sunken ship, and raising the ferry intact has been a key demand of the victims’ families.
“I am a mother who just really misses her daughter. Please pray for us so we can go home with Eun-Hwa,” said Lee Keum-Hui, breaking down.
“We will be grateful if you pray with us so that the last remaining victims can return to their families.”
Lee and a handful of other relatives have been living in makeshift homes at Paengmok, the closest port to the wreck, since the April 2014 accident.
Huh Heung-Hwan, the father of another missing student, boarded a boat bound for the accident site saying: “We will go out to the sea now and we could be there for hours or days.”
The salvage effort involves two barges and a semi-submersible, and is being led by a Chinese consortium.
The maritime ministry said that preparations for the test would begin Wednesday morning. If all goes well, and weather forecasts are favourable, the full lift of the 6,825-tonne ferry, expected to take three days, will go ahead.
Investigations into the disaster concluded it was largely man-made — the cumulative result of an illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay, inexperienced crew and a questionable relationship between the ship operators and state regulators.
But it also hung over Park’s presidency, with accusations that she was unreachable for seven hours in the crucial initial phase of the sinking, and a permanent protest site targeting her was subsequently set up in the centre of Seoul.
Captain Lee Jun-Seok was sentenced to life in prison for “murder through wilful negligence” and 14 other crew members given terms ranging from two to 12 years.