SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean workers have started tests to determine if they can begin salvaging a 6,800-ton ferry that sank in 2014, killing more than 300 people and triggering a public uproar that contributed to the recent ouster of Park Geun-hye as president.
An official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said it was not clear if the salvage operation can begin Wednesday.
Workers on two barges have slipped 66 cables beneath the Sewol ferry, which has been lying on its left side in about 40 meters (130 feet) of water. The cables are connected to a frame of metal beams divers have spent months putting in place.
Lee Cheoljo, a ministry official, said workers have lifted the ferry about a meter (3 feet) above the seafloor, and divers are inspecting the ship underwater. He told reporters that a balancing operation is required because of the ferry’s tilt.
Lee said the government will then decide whether to start the salvaging operation or put the ferry back down and try another time.
Once the salvage operation begins, it is expected to take at least 10 hours to raise the top part of the ferry about 13 meters (42 feet) above the surface.
Workers will then begin loading it onto a semi-submersible, heavy-lift vessel that will carry it to a mainland port. That process, including emptying the ferry of water and fuel, is expected to take days.
Workers also conducted tests to raise the ferry on Sunday, but delayed the operation after some cables became tangled.
The bodies of 295 passengers — most of whom were students on a high school trip — were recovered after the sinking on April 16, 2014, but nine are still missing. Relatives are hoping that those remains will be found inside the ferry.
The ferry disaster touched off an outpouring of national grief and triggered anger over what was seen as a botched rescue job by the government.
The ferry’s captain survived and is serving a life sentence after a court found him guilty of committing homicide through “willful negligence” because he fled the ship without issuing an evacuation order.
Park was forced to defend herself against accusations that she was out of contact for several hours on the day of the sinking. The allegations were included in an impeachment bill lawmakers passed against Park in December, amid broader corruption suspicions.
Park was formally removed from office by the Constitutional Court earlier this month. She is now under criminal investigation over suspicions that she conspired with a confidante to extort money and favors from companies and allow the friend to secretly interfere with state affairs.
South Korea initially planned to salvage the ferry by the end of last year, but the process was delayed due to strong currents and unfavorable weather conditions.