South Korea on Wednesday took a long-awaited step to salvage the sunken Sewol ferry, as the wreckage began to be lifted from the seabed.
About 300 people, mostly high school students, died when it went aground and capsized in waters off Jindo, South Jeolla Province, nearly three years ago. Nine are still unaccounted for.
Salvage operators said they began to raise the sunken ship and part of its structure was revealed above the water around 3:45 a.m. nearly three years after the disaster took place.
If the entire ferry will be raised, two salvage barges will move the hull on a semisubmersible ship, which will carry it to the port of Mokpo, according to a news report.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, which controls the salvage operation, expects that it will take about 12-13 days to lift the ship and move it into Mokpo.
With some of the bereaved families watching from boats, engineers began the salvage operation at 8:50 p.m., which involves lifting the 145-meter-long, 6,850-ton passenger vessel without cutting it into pieces.
"The wreckage was lifted about 1 meter off the seabed at around 3:30 p.m.," the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries told reporters.
Many Koreans hoped for the ship's safe but swift recovery Wednesday.
"We thank all those who have supported us. We need you once again to pray for the safe salvage of the ship and return of the nine (passengers) who are still in there," said family members of the passengers whose bodies are still unaccounted for at a press conference at a port in Jindo, Wednesday.
A conspicuously larger number of people paid a visit to a memorial in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, for Sewol victims, praying for the ferry's recovery and the return of those missing.
"Three years have passed, I cannot imagine what the families have gone through. I wish the causes of the ferry sinking will come out to the surface as well," said 59-year-old Song Cheol-sub.
A centre for bereaved families and a memorial classroom of Danwon High School in Ansan -- where most of the student victims attended -- also received a larger number of visitors and volunteers Wednesday.
The ill-fated passenger ship was carrying 476 people to a southern resort island of Jeju when it sank on April 16, 2014. Just 172 passengers were rescued.
The government had earlier this week said that the salvage effort will likely take place during the next neap tide on April 5.
The ministry has been carefully reviewing the weather conditions around the site as it requires calm seas. To proceed with the salvage operation, waves should not exceed 1 meter in height and wind should be at less than 10 meters per second.
Bad weather and high tides have several times delayed the resumption of operations to raise the wreckage of the ship.
"We need to lift the ship at least 35 meters off from the seabed during the actual lifting. Then we will be able to see about 13 meters of the hull of the ferry above the surface, to be dried out and ready to dock to another vessel to be carried to land for inspection," said Lee Cheol-jo, a ministry official in charge of the salvage project.
If work goes smoothly, the whole process will take about 14 days, he added.
The ship, lying on the sea floor on its left side, would normal weigh 8,300 metric tons according to the ministry, but water, stones and sand inside has increased that to about 20,000 metric tons.
The government announced the salvage operation plan in 2015, but the timeline for raising Sewol has been repeatedly postponed due to adverse weather and technical problems.
Read also: South Korea raises sunken ferry: Yonhap
S Korean presidential scandal sheds new light on Sewol ferry's '7-hour mystery'
Emotional graduation ceremony for Sewol ferry survivors
Angry and divided, South Korea mourns on anniversary of ferry disaster