NEW: Parents of the victims share their grief as vessel returns to surface
The Sewol ferry sank on April 16, 2014, killing 304 people on board
Efforts to raise it have been underway ever since, amid frequent delays
Three years after they watched in horror as a passenger ferry carrying their children sank off the coast of South Korea, parents of the victims watched the vessel return to the surface Thursday.
“I feel so sorry for my child, thinking how he suffered, I wasn’t there to offer him anything,” Lim Young-jae, who lost his son in the Sewol ferry disaster, told CNN.
The Sewol sank on April 16, 2014, killing 304 people – mostly teens on a school trip. Nine bodies are still missing; it is hoped they will be recovered once the vessel is out of the water.
Jang Dong-won voiced the frustration many of the victims’ parents feel that the salvage operations have taken this long.
“It’s the first time in three years I’ve seen the ferry with my naked eye, and it’s hard to understand why we couldn’t lift it before,” he said.
“The priority is to find the missing bodies and do the least damage to the ship so we can find the truth and the reason it sank.”
Engineers worked overnight to lift the 140-meter vessel several feet out of the water Thursday morning. Great care was taken to ensure it did not break apart.
Speaking Thursday, Lee Cheol-jo, head of the Sewol salvaging committee, said that 450 people were working on the vessel, including 50 divers.
They are attempting to stabilize and secure the ship so it can be lifted 13 meters (42 feet) out of the water, after which it will be attached to a barge and towed to land.
Lee said the Sewol is expected to be returned to Shin Port in nearby Mokpo city around April 4, weather conditions depending.
For many of the families of the victims, the wait for answers has been agonizing.
“My son was the 220th body to be found, after 16 days,” said Shin Chang-sik. “I can’t imagine how the children were shouting and calling for their mother and father on the ship, I feel sorry for him and at the same time I am sorry (I couldn’t be there).”
Shin said the disaster “feels like yesterday.”
“My days stopped on April 16, 2014. I would do anything to turn the clock back to April 15th,” he said.
An investigation into the Sewol’s sinking found evidence of negligence by the coast guard, and in the actions of the crew and captain on the day.
Survivors said the passengers were told by the Sewol’s officers to stay put as the vessel sank.
And video emerged of Captain Lee Joon-seok, dressed only in his underwear, leaping into the arms of the Korean Coast Guard as hundreds remained trapped on the vessel. He was later convicted of murder.
Family groups and opposition politicians have long called for the Sewol’s recovery and a full investigation into its sinking.
The incident was a black mark on the presidency of Park Geun-hye, who appeared to be absent during the unfolding disaster, not addressing the nation until seven hours after the ferry began taking on water.
However, Park’s impeachment this month for abuse of power was a bittersweet moment for many Sewol families, as the former President’s handling of the incident was not considered a factor by the court in her impeachment.
CNN’s Taehoon Lee contributed reporting.