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.
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.
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.
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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