JINDO, South Jeolla Province - After nearly three years lying on the sea bed, the Sewol ferry is finally ready to come out of the water.
And the day when the ill-fated passenger ship is brought on land would, for the victims' families and many ordinary citizens, mark the start of a long-awaited end to bitter disputes and acrimonies over why this country that prides itself in technological prowess failed to rescue over 300 passengers from a slowly sinking ship in broad daylight.
On Friday, when The Korea Herald visited the waters off Jindo, where Sewol capsized on April 16, 2014, final preparations to raise the wreckage of the sunken ship were in full swing.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries had planned to begin lifting it Sunday, but had to change the schedule due to weather conditions. The lifting is mostly likely to take place on April 5 when the next neap tide is expected, a ministry official said.
None had expected salvaging the ship would take this long.
To lift the 6,825-ton ferry, which lies 40 meters underneath the surface of the water, the government had decided to install beams underneath the wreckage, which will be used for the lifting.
"I've never seen that kind of soil. It wasn't bedrock, not earth nor sand, but it was more like a mixture of concrete and rocks," recalled Lee Cheol-jo, an official from the ministry who has been supervising the entire salvage operation since 2015.
"Each diver had to go underwater and check the soil condition, brief us on what it is, put the drilling machine and this process took too long," Lee said.
The government announced the salvage operation plan in 2015 and selected Chinese consortium Shanghai Salvage to spearhead the 85 million won (S$104,477) project.
Since then, at least 200 workforces have lived on a floating barge.
The Sewol ferry was carrying 476 people, mostly students on a school trip. Just 172 passengers were rescued and nine bodies are still unaccounted for.
A group of 60 divers, technicians and engineers had to stay awake 24-7, taking turns in three shifts, because they never know when there would be a calmer sea for them to go underwater, they said.
The salvage project began in June last year with the target of bringing the ferry to the surface by the end of July.
But with work postponed several times due to adverse weather and technical problems, the timeline for raising Sewol was repeatedly pushed back to August, September and then October.
To finish the preparation operation in time, divers were put on standby in body-warming suits connected to a hot water tank even in December, ready to go underwater, ministry officials explained. The waters off Jindo are known to have strong currents throughout the year.
Shanghai Salvage, a Chinese company, was the only company that suggested lifting the sunken Sewol using a lifting rack in a method called "tandem lifting." Other companies mostly suggested hooking the ship and lifting it with a crane.
Lifting a ship of this size with such a method has never before been tried, ministry officials said.
"It is crucial to practice and conduct a final check on the centre of gravity and calculate how much power each lifting wire needs to withstand," said Lee.
During the entire process, keeping balance is the key to lifting the heavy ship.
The Sewol ferry, lying at the bottom of the sea on its left side, would now weigh about 16,250 tons, due to water, stones and sand inside the ship.
Without knowing the exact location of the nine missing bodies and the heavy freight inside the sunken ferry, they need to precisely analyse the load and forces to lift the ship beforehand, authorities said.
Two jack-up barges, which will lift the hull of Sewol, will bring the ship and dock it onto a semi-submersible vessel. The vessel will then carry the ship to a port in Mokpo, about 87 kilometers away.
If work goes smoothly, the whole process will take 10-15 days, ministry officials said.
"We need to lift it at least 35 meters off from the ground during the actual lifting slated for April 5. Then we will be able to see about 13 meters of the hull of the ferry above the surface, to be dried and ready to dock to another vessel to be carried to land for inspection," said Lee.
In case the missing nine bodies are not found inside the ship, the rest of the workers will continue to search underwater.
A total of 40 40-by-20-meter nets have been installed around the area where the ship is lying. Divers will walk underwater on the seabed and use sonar radar to detect the bodies.
Authorities said that it made the nets as tight as possible so even small bones would not go missing, considering the victims' families.
"It will be a slow and steady process. But we cannot rush," said Chang Ki-wuk, head of the salvage operation methods team.
"(Lifting the ship) will be the start of a successful search for not only the missing nine bodies, but to find out the clear cause of the Sewol ferry sinking, which will takes months from now," Chang added.
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